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Tsunami Forensics Bury Bodies To Preserve For DNA

Tsunami Forensics Bury Bodies To Preserve For DNA Testing

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Forensic teams buried the cadavers of foreign tourists and Thais in shallow graves "to slow the decomposition" while conducting DNA tests, because refrigeration was not available for thousands of bodies recovered from the tsunamis, according to a UN disaster assessment official.

"Yes, there was a problem initially. Getting these great, big, refrigerated containers took a while, logistically, to organize to transport here," Neryl Lewis, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team official, said in an interview on Tuesday (Jan. 11).

"The bodies were just being stored in [Buddhist] temples, because they had to find some centralized locations where they could actually bring these bodies," she said, referring to corpses wrapped in cloth or plastic, packed in dry ice, and stacked outdoors in the tropical heat.

After more than 4,000 corpses arrived by trucks at three main temples in worst-hit Phang Nga province just north of Phuket, Thai officials were stunned at the huge numbers, and at a loss of how to prevent them rotting before identification.

"It took a little while to get their heads around the numbers of bodies that were being recovered, and they needed to work out what they were going to do in terms of storage," the UN official said.

"There was an issue of needing to put some of the bodies in temporary graves. These were only ever intended to be temporary graves.

"They had to slow the decomposition process down in some way, and that was the best they could think of at the time, to put them in these shallow graves that were all clearly marked," Ms. Lewis said.

More than 800 cadavers were reportedly buried without confirmed identification, Thai news reports said.

Now that more international forensic teams have arrived, and Thailand has brought refrigerated shipping containers to the temples, those corpses were being exhumed.

"Which is what they are doing now, they are able to recover these bodies and carry out further testing just to make sure they've got this 100 percent right," Ms. Lewis said.

"They now seem to have adequate storage space for the bodies," the UN disaster assessment official said.

"The message at the moment appears to be that they have enough equipment. They certainly have enough forensic teams to deal with the situation.

"These teams are able to provide DNA analysis of up to 60 to 150 people a day...they weren't able to move that quickly initially," she said.

More than 5,305 people perished when tsunamis hit Thailand's west coast on Dec. 26.

About 1,792 of them may be Thais, and 1,329 may be foreigners, according to the Interior Ministry's latest estimates.

It was too difficult to determine the nationality or race of the other 2,184 victims, because many of their corpses were already too bloated or decayed by when they were recovered several days after the tidal waves receded.

"This forensics operation has probably been the largest forensics operation in history, so there were no illusions that it would run smoothly," Ms. Lewis said, praising Thailand's overall effort.

"Each [foreign forensic] team had arrived with different standards with which they work. They had been tasked to primarily find their own nationals, which is obviously always going to be the case in these situations.

"But over time, the teams have developed agreed protocols, they have developed agreed standards, they have developed agreed ways of working together, and they are also now working to identify every person, no matter what nationality these people are.

"So they are looking to identify both Thais and foreigners alike," Ms. Lewis said.

Thailand, meanwhile, has asked relatives of missing, or dead, Thais to give DNA samples.

"They are establishing collection centers in each of the provinces, for people who lost family members, where they can come in and give DNA samples just to speed up the process of making positive matches between those relatives who have reported family members missing," Ms. Lewis said.

DNA confirmation is necessary for legal, financial and emotional reasons, including questions of property inheritance, insurance claims and possible government compensation for relatives or other beneficiaries.

DNA confirmation also allows officials to issue a death certificate "to prove that their loved one, or friend, or whoever, has actually been killed in this instance," Ms. Lewis said.

"Also, in Thailand, to gain compensation for the Thais, they need to have a death certificate.

"Then there is just that human dimension as well. Everybody wants to know that they've got their loved ones' remains to take home for burial. Whether they bury or cremate, everybody just wants to be confident that they've got their loved ones."

Some news reports suggested that all DNA from unidentified bodies would be sent to China for analysis, but the UN official said those reports were not accurate.

"All the DNA is being analyzed here in Thailand. I think some of that [news about China] was largely myth and rumor. I think there was some consideration maybe given to where the DNA was best analyzed, but it's been decided that it will be analyzed here in Thailand, as the best place for analysis."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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