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Disaster victim identification staff return from Europe

"Police disaster victim identification staff return from Europe"

Within a week of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine in July, New Zealand Police disaster victim identification (DVI) experts were flying out to help identify the victims.

Six DVI specialists worked in the Netherlands on two rotations as part of a New Zealand-Australian reconciliation team, matching known details of passengers with what could be forensically gathered from mortuary examinations.

They were based at Korporaal van Oudheusden Barracks, Hilversum, centre of a DVI operation which also included experts from the Netherlands, Germany, USA, Britain, Malaysia, Indonesia, Belgium and Canada.

First rotation commander Inspector Mike Wright, of Police National Headquarters (PNHQ) - DVI commander after the Christchurch earthquake – says the Kiwis helped identify 183 victims.

There was little doubt New Zealand would answer the call for help.

New Zealand’s DVI expertise is internationally acknowledged, with the response to the Erebus disaster in 1979 setting a benchmark, says Mike.

Since then work overseas - the 2002 Bali bombings, 2004 Solomon Islands homicides and Boxing Day tsunami, 2008 Air New Zealand Airbus crash, 2009 Victorian bush fires and Samoan tsunami – and at home, for example Christchurch and Carterton, have enhanced that reputation.

Discussions about the MH17 response quickly took place between Police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and within 48 hours Mike received a phone call asking: “If Police was to consider a DVI response, what would it look like?’

An offer to the Dutch government and Police Commissioner was accepted and an approach was made to Australia scoping a combined mission.

“New Zealand Police was really on the front foot in demonstrating that they wanted to help,” says Mike.

On 24 July Mike, Constable Barry Shepherd (Taupo) and Senior Constable Al Hendrickson (Blenheim) set off for the Netherlands, where they were replaced three weeks later by Inspector Geoff Logan (PNHQ), Senior Sergeant Steve Harwood (Hutt Valley) and Sergeant Karl Wilson (Auckland).

At Hilversum the first rotation saw a familiar face - Dutch DVI commander Arie de Bruijn, with whom they worked in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami.

Mike says the relationship benefited both parties.

“Every day something resonated from Christchurch,” he says.

“I was able to identify issues that Arie was confronted with.

I was able to say to him on a couple of occasions ‘I’ve experienced this’.”

This illustrates the teamwork which underpins DVI.

“Nothing is achieved without teamwork.

It starts before you get where you’re going,” says Mike.

The team includes the forensic pathologists, dentists and others in the mortuary, Police and ministry staff who organise deployments and those who stay behind and cover for absent colleagues.

Mike particularly acknowledges the work of Detective Constable Geoff McGhie, who interviewed the family of Kiwi victim Rob Ayley to gather identifying material, supported by family liaison officer Detective Niall Deehan.

“Geoff was meticulous, which gave us a real sense of confidence that things were as they should be,” says Mike.

“We didn’t have to ask any questions about what he provided.”

Back home, Mike says, the DVI teams were glad of the welfare support offered by Police.

“Over time we've learnt from the experience of past events which has helped to really tailor the support staff now receive.

Mike says DVI workers are motivated by a desire to help grieving families and determination to treat victims with the utmost respect and dignity.

“Like all those I’ve worked with, I get a real sense of satisfaction from knowing I’ve been able to bring closure to families in particularly trying circumstances,” he says.


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