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Ehrlich: Body Identification Ruckus In Phuket

Body Identification Ruckus In Phuket

by Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Egotistical squabbles among international embassies, recovery and forensics teams in which "everybody wanted to be the boss," caused problems while identifying the tsunami's dead at the main morgue in a Buddhist temple, according to a U.S. Marine Corps search and recovery team leader.

The Thai government had to step in and ask all foreign forensic teams to come together under one agreed-upon standard and procedure, which has now started to streamline the system and bring corpses into a conformed DNA sampling system, the American Marine captain said.

"I can tell you, it's getting better, all the embassies now are starting to work together, all the teams are starting to work together," U.S. Marine Captain Michael L. Craighead, Search and Recovery Team Leader for "K" Team, said in an interview.

"So everybody has put their egos aside, and they are trying to make this work and get these bodies home to their families," Capt. Craighead of the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) said on Saturday (Jan. 15).

"In the early days, everybody wanted to be the boss. So you had problems, until the [Thai] government stepped in and said, 'Look, this is what I asked you to come here to do, and that's to help and identify the bodies, and we need to be on one accord'," said Capt. Craighead, 35, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"You had a lot of international countries, coming to Thailand to help, and nobody had no control of these guys," Capt. Craighead said.

"Some people do it [recovery and forensics] different from others. But there had to be one system," he said.

"You have certain countries that like to process and operate in a certain way, and you have others that like to operate in a different way as well. Your job is to put them both together and make them understand this is all the same team, in the same fight."

Problems lessened after foreign governments agreed on a standard to identify DNA and corpses by establishing on Phuket island on Jan. 11 the world's largest Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) center, coordinated by Europe-based Interpol.

"We've been engaged in all the recovery efforts and identification process," Capt. Craighead said.

"Typical issues that normally come up in day-to-day work here is you have about 29 or 30 countries here, and you have to facilitate all the requests, and try to help everybody out. Issues that pop up are diplomatic in nature, and you just have to deal with that and let embassies do their job."

Placing international teams on U.S. or other shared helicopters also takes coordination and tact, because everyone urgently wants to go to Wat Yarn Yao, a Buddhist temple which has been converted into a sprawling, makeshift morgue in Phang Nga province's Takua Pa district just north of Phuket, and other sites.

In 2003, JPAC was created by merging a 30-year-old U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory and an 11-year-old Joint Task Force Full Accounting unit on Hawaii, to account for Americans who disappeared in U.S. wars, or were captured as prisoners of war.

Shortly after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26, JPAC sent forensic teams to Thailand and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region to help check DNA and identify corpses.

JPAC's forensic teams were more familiar with digging up bones of U.S. military troops buried in Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, China and elsewhere.

"Laos and Vietnam are pretty much scripted. We know who we are going to find, we have an idea of

a search area," Capt. Craighead said, comparing his search and recovery work there with the raw and chaotic scenes in Thailand.

"With this thing here, the mass casualties, you really don't know what you're going to find from day to day. That's the big difference. Every day is something new.

"You really don't know who you're going to identify, who those people are, but your job is to help them out."

At least 5,291 people perished in Thailand during the tsunamis. Thai officials said half of those deaths included foreigners.

Capt. Craighead's work is made more personal by the faces of grieving Thais and foreigners who cluster at the Buddhist temple's morgue gates, awaiting to claim corpses for cremation or burial.

"Yes, it's difficult to see all the bodies, and all the family members at the gate, waiting to see loved ones. It is very difficult. Extremely," he said.

"Nobody has ever seen this before. It is something new, and we hope will never happen again. This was a disaster.

"If you look at all the damage on the coastline, and all the lives shattered, and all the children right now that don't have families, this is a life-changing event for everybody. It is hard to see families go through this, people who have lost everything."

Neryl Lewis, a United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team official, said in an interview, "This forensics operation has probably been the largest forensics operation in history, so there were no illusions that it would run smoothly.

"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," the UN disaster assessment official said.

"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," Ms. Lewis said.


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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