Friday, October 6, 2017


I am going to be deliberately vague in this blog for reasons that will become clear.
As you will no doubt be aware there was a very bad fire in London not so long ago. It has become known as the Grenfell disaster. Over 70 people lost their lives. But nobody really knows how many and you have to ask in this day and age, how can that be?
                                            As Grenfell was covered on the front pages

And of course, there have been more recent events in Las Vegas with equally tragic results.
 We are blessed to have an agreement for DVI (disaster victim identification) that over 100 countries in the world have signed up to. It means there is an established protocol – a workable, efficient and empathetic protocol - for working through the victims of such huge incidents. This protocol applies to all incidents in that happen in any of those counties. The international agencies learned a lot from the tsunami of   Boxing Day 2004   where 230 000 people across 14 countries went missing. 3000 of them have never been identified or found. 
They are still giving families back the bodies of Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
You only have to look at the major air disasters recently and the multinational manifest to see how necessary it is to have an international approach.
The actual figures and logistics are mind boggling.  I am not going to be specific but there was a recent city centre bombing that resulted in 20 fatalities. The system swung into action. The authorities knew that the local mortuary could take 120 bodies in their storage area. It had three post mortem tables, three full time pathologists, full equipped labs etc. You might think that was enough for twenty fatalities. 
It was filled to capacity. The actual space was not big enough to cope with personnel needed to deal with the scale of the disaster. And the nature of that disaster and what is referred to as fragmentation. It’s never X number of bodies, it’s thousands of body parts.  And it could be twenty thousand body parts that have to be identified and correctly placed together.
In the past there have been terrible mistakes of misidentification and the protocols in place have to be rigorous enough to stand up to the demands of social media. It’s not unusual for the first notice the ‘team’ get, is a text message to turn on SKY news.  
So immediately after the incident, the DVI team swing into action. A Casualty bureau is set up with a help line number. That helpline has to be manned by trained staff. A lady might be phoning to say her husband gets that commuter train that crashed that morning ‘is he ok?’  Or their child was at that concert where the roof collapsed leaving many dead and injured...  The person who answers that call has to carefully, and skilfully extract intelligence from the caller to aid ID of a victim – fatally injured or just injured.
The ground staff at the incident bag and tag everything, but presume nothing. Too many times mistakes have been made by human error trying to be helpful in an emotionally fraught situation. ID cards, bank cards, credit cards can be blown from one person to impact another’s chest wall.  Tattoos are common place and picked out a catalogue, they are not as specific as crime writers would like us to believe. Odontology is easy and cheap if you   have other intel as to the ID of the victim to request their dental records. And if you have a head. And teeth.
At a recent terrorist incident in the UK, 18 000 staff from various agencies were involved in reclaiming the dead and identifying them. There were less than 10 fatalities but the situation was complicated by mass separation, the involvement of foreign nationals,   one of the bodies being that of the terrorist and the media constantly wanting more details and precise numbers when it was simply not possible.
 They are still going through Grenfell Tower, still not got a final number.  The heat in that inferno was hotter than most crematorium fires so that gives you an idea of what sort of material they are looking at to aid identification. The primary indicators of identification are odontology then ridgology (in some parts of the world it was common practice to remove the hands of the victim to aid the taking of fingerprints – glad to say that this does not happen now). And of course there is DNA. Sounds simple until there are no teeth,  no hands, burned flesh and DNA is not  without its limitations when considering adoption, IVF and the complicated nature of family life nowadays. Secondary identification is always useful intelligence especially the photograph of a scar or an implant, a ring with an inscription inside. It  all helps but it’s only supporting evidence.
Then there’s the scene itself. An  open scene like a mass murder shooting of a single gun man in a town high street. Nobody really knows who was there, who might have been there, who was supposed to be there. And then there’s the closed scenes such as an aeroplane, helicopter or boat disaster where there is a passenger manifest that should be reliable but again consider how often the service helicopter flying out to the rigs  has a last minute change of workmen passenger or crew.
A closed incident should never be presumed to be totally closed. Situations like Lockerbie are both open and closed. The manifest of who was on that flight should be accurate, but the issue of who was killed on the ground in the village took a long time to determine. And the fourth situation can apply to all of the above where there is fragmentation, square miles of the country have to be sectioned off for a complete search to take place.

As you may know, there have been two rather famous instances of identification being wrong.
 The mix up in America of Laura and Whitney in 2008 where one set of parents buried someone else’s daughter and a wee sister sitting at the bedside of a very injured ‘big sister’ beginning to suspect that it wasn’t her big sister at all. And she was right.

 The photographs of the two girls show that you couldn’t really tell them apart. The Boston bombing had a similar tragic outcome of parents being told their daughter was dead when in fact she was critically injured. By the time they located her in the hospital, she had unfortunately passed away.

At a recent atrocity in France, the pictures of the dead feature six ladies that are very hard to describe apart- they could have been sisters. All young, pretty, dark eyed, long dark hair and eerily similar features. How many of them would be wearing jeans and trainers?  

I think the most chilling thing about all this is that more countries are signing up as they realise there

is going to be many more incidents of mass fatality.

Caro Ramsay 06 10 2017


  1. I never knew much of that. Your depth of knowledge always astounds me, Caro. As does your beauty and wit. And these observations have nothing to do with my fate soon being in your hands, Oh Majestic Moderator on High.

    1. Oh yes indeed Jeff. Are you feeling the fear? Well fear not, I shall have my pleasant moderating hat on....for well behaved panellists...

  2. News to me too. Good to know that sensible people are doing sensible things in the midst of the mayhem.

    1. I think the powers that be in many countries learned from the tsunami and realised that the citizens of all countries are vulnerable to such incidents and they heeded those lessons.

  3. Thank God for The Professionals, and may we always keep in mind the fallibility of even the best and the difficulties of the circumstances in which they work. Fascinating and thought-provoking column, Caro.

    1. I was in the audience of a lecture about this, much of the content was ( I think) unsuitable for a blog but one thing the lecturer - head of a DVI unit - hinted at twice was the one country that struggles to follow the protocol it has signed up to. Dare to guess who? It has a guy in charge with weird blond hair. ( Not Boris Johnson just in case Theresa has been ousted by the time you read this.)

  4. Hi Caro. I was lucky enough to talk to Home Office Pathologist Bill Lawler before I wrote a book about a DVI team operating after a major earthquake. He ran the team who went to Christchurch after the earthquake there in 2011, and explained much of the process. Fascinating, and horrifying. He said that their forensic odontologist would stick teeth into sets on cardboard to get a match, and that implant serial numbers were also very useful to correctly ID the dead, but, as your post highlights, that the last thing they relied upon was families making a visual ID. He said they found after the Hillsborough football stadium disaster that there were too many false positives and false negatives, where people were either in denial that their loved one might be among the dead, or they just wanted closure. Desperately sad all round.

  5. Indeed Zoe. A Scottish pathologist had a lot to do with Hillsborough and said they had to consider reviewing the laws of 'death' and 'murder'. Victims kept alive by machines? Then to pass away more than a year and a day later. Complex legal issues there.