Identification process may take a month

State forensic pathologist Dr Chris Lawrence says identifying the victims of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 attack could take longer than a month.
State forensic pathologist Dr Chris Lawrence says identifying the victims of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 attack could take longer than a month.

INVESTIGATORS involved in the recovery of downed Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 and the 38 Australians on board face a gruelling task, according to a Tasmanian forensic expert.

State forensic pathologist Dr Chris Lawrence is intimately familiar with disaster victim identification (DVI).

During his decades long career he's identified victims of the Port Arthur massacre, the Bali terrorist bombings, the Asian tsunami and Balkan war crimes.

This week Australia dispatched some 45 officials to the Ukraine, including 20 forensic experts and investigators, to assist in the recovery. 

Dr Lawrence said the complexities of the disaster were immense and investigators were most likely already behind the eight-ball. 

``Typically the scene is sealed-off and everything is located and given a DVI number,'' he said yesterday. 

``Now obviously with a plane which has exploded in the air you're going to have a very large scene.

``The other problem of course is its landed in an area where the government is not particularly well organised and they don't have teams set up to do this sort of thing.''

That the scene has been disrupted could cause long delays in the identification process.

``Sometimes doing what they did, trying to collect up documents, can be exactly the worst thing you can possibly do,'' he said.

Once the bodies are taken to a mortuary they will be x-rayed to look for shrapnel and identifying features.

Dr Lawrence said three main methods of identification would be used - DNA, fingerprints and dental records - but even then the process was not foolproof. 

``DNA's not particularly good at telling the difference between the siblings. Fingerprints can be useful providing there are records of people and that's not the case. Increasingly these days dental records can be hard to find as well,'' he said. 

Prior to this a team would have carried out an ante-mortem collecting things like victims' dental records and personal items like toothbrushes. 

``They'll go out and find what operations (the victims have) had  ... sometimes they'll go to the house to get blood from living relatives to compare,'' he said.  

The third stage is the reconciliation process.

``They sit down and they work through all of the items,'' he said.

It's then up to reconciliation board to determine when a person is officially identified. 

Dr Lawrence said he suspected the process would take longer than a month. 

He said it could be incredibly stressful but also be rewarding for the investigators. 

``You'll see the best of people but also the worst,'' he said. 

``I know of at least two sudden deaths that have occurred associated with disaster victim identification.

``But you're also making a difference so there are high and lows in this.''


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