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Tattoos Help Identify Tsunami Victims' Bodies

Tsunami Report: Tattoos Help Identify Vicims' Bodies

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- The popularity of tattoos among foreigners and Thais has helped identify bodies recovered from the tsunami, especially when it is difficult to match DNA with a relative, or find dental records, according to a U.S. government forensic anthropologist sorting the cadavers.

"Now that they're more popular, I assume more people have more records of their tattoos, and so it would be useful," said Paul D. Emanovsky, a forensic anthropologist based at the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

"I think it definitely helps. It is definitely one of the things that could help lead to a presumptive identification, that could then be further checked," Mr. Emanovsky said in an interview.

"If there are no family [DNA] reference samples that can ever be obtained, and you can't ever find dental X-rays or dental chart information, and if already the fingerprint is no longer viable, in a specific case, then it would be very, very difficult to identify that person.

"As long as the ante-mortem [before death] records are gathered, I think most cases have a very good chance of being identified."

Other clues include "medical histories -- for instance if a person had broken their arm, or had surgical intervention, those are markers that could show up and help identify that person," he said.

Thai forensic officials are inserting computer chips into corpses to assist with identification, Mr. Emanovsky said, confirming sketchy Thai news reports about the high-tech procedure.

"I have not actually seen it implanted, but the Thais are putting some sort of chip into the skull, to track the remains," Mr. Emanovsky said.

"What I've been told is, they're implanting it into the maxillary sinus," he said, indicating the upper jaw bone below the cheek.

Some DNA samples from corpses retrieved from the tsunami will also be sent to Beijing, China, for further testing.

"I believe some of the DNA samples, post-mortem samples, are going to be processed in a lab in Beijing," Mr. Emanovsky said.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also mentioned the decision.

Labs in China could help match names to corpses, especially among the estimated 2,000 bodies which remain unidentified, out of a total 5,291 people who died in Thailand's tsunamis.

"I have done the initial processing, or helped with the initial processing, of hundreds of bodies, at least a hundred," said Mr. Emanovsky, 28, whose hometown is Bohemia, Long Island, New York.

He described his work at Wat Yarn Yao, a Buddhist temple which hurriedly constructed a morgue at its site in Takua Pa district of tsunami-hit Phang Nga province, just north of Phuket.

"I've been cutting -- some of the bodies are wrapped in sheets -- so I'll cut the sheets off, or wrappers, or I'll unzip the bag.

"Then I do a cursory physical examination of the body at that moment, [and note] if the hair is long, light-colored hair, or something along those lines," he said.

"I describe the clothes that are on. Tag the wrist with an identification number for the DVI [Disaster Victim Identification] process, and then zip it back up and put it in a new bag."

The sorted and numbered bodies are then placed in containers for a more detailed, post-mortem process.

"It is initiating the system for identification," Mr. Emanovsky said of his work. "It's definitely a sad, tragic event."

Mr. Emanovsky is in Thailand with a team sent by the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), which usually seeks Americans missing from U.S. wars, or kept as prisoners of war.

JPAC previously deployed Mr. Emanovsky to Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, Germany and Alaska to recover American bodies, he said.

"In those cases, a lot of research and investigative work has gone into where we are going to dig for remains, and where we are looking for isolated burials, or aircraft crashes. So we have investigative teams that have already gone out and maybe found some wreckage, maybe found some life support.

"Then we go out and set up a full-scale recovery on those, to excavate it, to crime scene archeological-type standards, and maintain chain of custody and bring the remains back to our lab in Hawaii," Mr. Emanovsky said.

Recovery and identification of Thailand's tsunami victims is a very different mission.

"Here, most of the collection work is happening by the [Thai] nationals, who are bringing it to collection points. It is more of a lab morgue operation, rather than a search and recovery operation," for Mr. Emanovsky and other American JPAC teams, he said.

When more than 4,000 bodies were suddenly brought to the Buddhist temple shortly after the tsunami on Dec. 26, hundreds of cadavers were put in shallow graves which the Thais dug because they did not have enough available refrigerated containers to preserve them for detailed DNA tests.

"Some of them have been exhumed," the forensic anthropologist said.

"I think considering the circumstances, yes, it's fine," to bury bodies which cannot be otherwise protected.

"Typically when a body is buried, it decomposes slower than when it is on the surface because it has less access for insects to invade, and less access for animals and whatnot to help with the decomposition process."

Another creative touch was the Thais' use of dry ice to help preserve bodies outdoors at the temple.

"Yes, there are bodies out in a field, or within the compound of the wat [temple], that are packed in dry ice. Some of them are outdoors.

"I've not seen it before," he said.

For Mr. Emanovsky, the forensic work has been grueling but rewarding.

"I'm just glad that I can be here, to lend some sort of assistance to helping the identification process, and keeping the remains through a chain of custody that will provide identifications down the line," Mr. Emanovsky said.

"I enjoy all aspects of forensic anthropology, which includes mass disaster, and recent forensic cases, and forensic cases that JPAC typically works. I'm just interested in figuring out, and identifying, who people are from their remains, and what can be learned."


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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