A man is found on what is left of one of the beaches, he has an arm missing and his left leg is excruciatingly crushed and splintered. It is presumed that the wave threw him up and then dragged him down over the rough ground. Because of this abuse his face is missing and his shorts are torn. His remaining ring finger wears a simple looking ring- the aid worker who found the body takes one look at the ring and thinks about the man’s wife. Upon his right shoulder is the portrait of a young girl; below it is a date: 18-07-2003, his daughter is only aged one and a half (they haven’t found her yet). This person was a son, possibly a brother, a father, an uncle, a husband, a friend; he means a lot to someone and it is up to the authorities to give this man his name and send him home. The only problem is he has no face, no official forms of identification on him and sadly he is not able to tell anyone who he is.

There are some extraordinary feats that the authorities have to overcome to give families of victims like this man some peace of mind. The Sri Lankan Tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004 killed nearly one quarter of a million people, like the man with no face- each of them having someone that loves them. 

Standard operating guidelines are devised by Interpol to ensure that Disaster Victim Identification teams consisting of Pathologists, Odontologists, anthropologists, police officers, search and rescue teams, doctors, nurses and mission co-ordinators work together to deal with the aftermath of disaster. Not only do the decedents need to be formally identified for emotional reasons but also for legal reasons. The Belgian authorities have devised a very efficient way of dealing with mass identification. It is composed of police officers who specialise in recovery, exhumation and photography, medical examiners, odontologists, a psychologist trained in post-traumatic stress disorder, a doctor and a nurse to tend to the medical needs of the team members. 

The processes involved with identifying decedents from a major disaster are arduous and invasive. There are four main examinations that the body has to go through to result in a secure identification; fingerprinting, medical examination, odontological examination and DNA sampling.

Due to the condition of the bodies and varying states of decomposition, it is often difficult to fingerprint the decedents. A technique has been developed to combat this problem. DEGLOVING, a process whereby the skin of the fingers or whole hand is removed and worn like a glove by the examiner; the examiner then uses this ‘glove’ to transfer the print and successfully records it.

After fingerprinting has taken place the body is moved to a makeshift autopsy room for medical examination. Here external and internal examinations take place; items such as clothing and jewellery are recorded and photographed. The external examination records height, weight, build, scaring, tattoos and anything physical that may aid identification. Due to time constraints on this occasion, the internal examinations are restricted to the abdominal area only to check for identifiable surgical procedures such as the removal of the gall bladder or the presence of only one kidney.

The next stage of identification for the decedent is via odontology. Here the dental characteristics of the decedent are examined. In order to gain the necessary access to the mouth, the odontologist makes an incision around the jaw which allows the skin to be RETRACTED OVER THE FACE. From here any absence of teeth, presence of fillings or specialist dental work is recorded.

Finally the body is moved for DNA sampling which when matched with an example provided by the families of the victims gives the most definitive form of identification; thus our man has his name and he can go home and be laid to rest.

This whole process is undertaken by hundreds of volunteers who have to work around desolation and in conditions that are far from suitable and not of satisfactory standards. The scenes are often horrific and require gumption and the sheer desire to help in order to give answers to families. Highly organised teams of professionals pause their lives to travel to disaster zones with a view of making a difference. Could you wear someone else’s hand as your own?

Jean-Pol Beauthier, Ed,dy De Valck, Philippe Lefevre, Joan De Winne. (2009). Mass Disaster Victim Identification: The Tsunami Experience. The Open Forensic Science Journal. 2 (10), 54-62.