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Investigators turning to DNA to identify tsunami victims

PHUKET, Thailand—The clues posted on the bulletin board outside a makeshift morgue here are meant to help: Jens had a long scar above his left hip. Dieter had a silver ring on his right pinky. Carola had a butterfly tattoo on her chest.

But for the forensic pathologists working to identify hundreds of tsunami victims stored in refrigerated cargo containers, they're of little assistance. The ring might have come off. The scars and tattoos aren't likely to be visible anymore because the bodies have decomposed.

So investigators are turning to DNA in what's become an amazingly complex effort to identify the bodies of the thousands of people known to have died in the Dec. 26 tsunami when it swept across coastal Thailand.

"We're past the point where visual identification is possible," said Edwin Huffine, an American forensic investigator who's helping to lead the effort. "DNA will play a very prominent role in the identification process."

That means the families of many victims are likely to wait a year or longer before learning with certainty what became of their loved ones.

More than 5,300 people died in Thailand when the tsunami hit, and many of those still haven't been identified.

Only 64 foreigners have been identified using fingerprints and dental records. The bodies of nearly 2,000 more are in storage.

The Yan Yao temple had become the main storage center for bodies here after the tsunami, but now the bodies of foreigners are being transferred to a new morgue called Site 2, which is being built by the Norwegian government. The bodies of Thai tsunami victims remain at Yan Yao.

More than 200 investigators from at least 18 nations are at work. They measure the corpses, search for peculiar markings, take fingerprints where possible and extract DNA samples, two from each body—one from a rib, the other from a femur.

DNA matching is logistically complex. The bone samples, each roughly the size of a tooth, are placed in small vials, vacuum-packed in plastic bags, refrigerated and sent to a laboratory in China for analysis.

DNA samples also must be taken from family members—parents, siblings or children—via a quick swab inside the cheek, and dental records and other data about the victims must be gathered in their home countries.

All the information is stored in a massive database and cross-tabulated.

At Yan Yao and Site 2, workers wear white jumpsuits and face masks. The grounds are sprayed regularly with disinfectant, and everyone constantly rubs his or her hands with germ-killing gel.

Once bodies are identified, they're placed in coffins and driven to another site to be sent home.

Dianne Little, an Australian forensic pathologist, was working at Yan Yao earlier this week, examining a delivery of body parts from a nearby hotel. Among them were a blond ponytail with a plastic hair clip still holding it together, and skin and flesh from two hands and a foot.

After bodies decompose, Little explained, the flesh comes off in much the same manner that a snake sheds its skin.

She managed to get a usable fingerprint from one hand and a palm print from the other. The hair had been pulled out from the roots and still had skin cells attached to it, which meant it might yield a good DNA sample.

The temple reeks of death.

"Most of the bodies here are only moderately decomposed," Little said, "but they are certainly at the point where most people would think they look horrific."

Bodies began arriving at Site 2 last week. About 2,000 will be stored there, 400 of which have yet to be looked at.

Before they're examined, the frozen bodies are laid on tables in the sun to thaw so that the doctors can manipulate them more easily.

Making the matches will be a laborious process, according to Huffine, the American who's chairing the group of DNA experts in Phuket.

Huffine, who works for a company called Bode Technology Group, helped set up the process for identifying roughly 30,000 bodies in the aftermath of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Some of the DNA samples from the tsunami victims won't be good enough, he said. New ones will have to be taken, which takes time.

As of last week, the Phuket database had information from the relatives of just 50 victims.

"Our work is just beginning," Huffine said. "We're at the infancy of this procedure."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-DNA

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