ID Transnational Consulting & INTERPOL
ID Transnational Consulting & INTERPOL: 2004 Southeast Asian Tsunami – Victim Identification in Thailand
On the 26th December 2004 a massive 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck off the north coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This resulted in one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded spreading across the Indian Ocean and striking the coasts of many Southeast Asian and East African countries. More than 230,000 people were subsequently killed. The operation to identify the deceased in Thailand was centred in Phuket. It was jointly led by the Royal Thai Police and the Australian Federal Police with Interpol supplying and operating the AFIS and DNA biometric search systems. Other countries, whose nationals were missing in the disaster, supplied Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams of police and forensic science personnel to aid in the identification of the deceased, regardless of their respective nationalities.
Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) is a protocol employed by law enforcement agencies around the world to identify the deceased in mass casualty events such as natural disasters, aviation incidents and terrorist attacks. The three primary identifiers used in DVI are:
- Fingerprints: In cases where a putative identity has been established, post-mortem fingerprint impressions are taken from the victim and compared 1:1 with ante-mortem finger marks that may have been developed, for example, on personal items such as household contents, diaries etc. or official fingerprints (if held). In cases where there is no indication as to the identity of the deceased then an Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is usually employed to conduct a biometric search of the post-mortem fingerprints against a database containing the ante-mortem finger marks.
- DNA: Similarly, DNA profiles generated from samples obtained from the deceased can be compared 1:1 with ante-mortem DNA profiles taken from personal items such as tooth or hair brushes or DNA profiles of surviving close family members (familial/kinship matching). DNA Databases can be used in the same way as an AFIS to search the victim’s DNA profile against the profiles produced from all the victims’ personal items. Additionally, links may be established between the DNA profiles of victims from the same family. This only applies to biological relatives.
- Forensic Odontology: A comparison of the victim’s teeth with ante-mortem dental records, X-rays and charts. A search capability of dental records is usually not possible because of the decentralised record systems used in most countries.
Challenges and critical success factors
The immersion of the deceased in salt water for long periods resulted, in many cases, in the detachment of the epidermal layer of skin from the hands in the form of a ‘glove.’ It is this layer that contains the papillary ridges of the fingers and palms that make up a person’s ‘fingerprints.’ The dermal skin layer beneath contains the ‘anchoring’ ridges that hold the epidermal ridges in place. There are two dermal ridges for each epidermal ridge and therefore this made impressions obtained from the dermal layer of skin largely incompatible with AFIS search systems i.e. attempting to match double ridge formations with single ridge formations of the same person. Any epidermal ‘gloves’ recovered with a body was examined by experts to determine whether or not the ‘glove’ had turned inside out when detaching from the hand. If the skin had turned inside out then the fingerprint impression taken from the glove would be in reverse direction, when recorded, and therefore would not be found during an AFIS search.
Of special note was the action taken in respect of the Myanmar workers who had lived in huts on the beaches of Phuket. It was originally assumed that because they had no possessions or property left after the destruction of the beaches that they would remain unidentified. However, it transpired that all Myanmar immigrants had been fingerprinted (two fingers recorded on cards) on entry to Thailand. These fingerprints were loaded into the Interpol AFIS and searches of the victims’ post-mortem fingerprints revealed a significant number of matches.
The prolonged exposure of the victims to the intense heat and humidity of the Thai climate meant that many of the ‘normal’ post-mortem samples obtained from the deceased were ‘denatured’ and no usable DNA profiles could be generated. DNA from bone marrow was found to be suitable but the extraction of DNA from bones was a highly specialised process in 2004/5 and very few laboratories could undertake the process, especially in bulk. However, eventually the samples were sent to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) facility in Sarajevo. Their considerable expertise in identifying numerous skeletal remains from the 1990s conflict in the former Yugoslavia proved invaluable. The DNA profiles were sent to the Interpol DNA Database in Phuket for search and many victims were successfully identified and, where appropriate, repatriated, including family groups linked by their DNA.
In most countries, dental records had to be collected from the individual dental surgeries of the missing persons. In Scandinavia, however, the dental records of several countries are collated in a centralised database. This allowed all the required records, charts and x-ray sheets to be accessed, collated and dispatched to Phuket within a very short time after the tsunami. Consequently, many Scandinavian victims were identified and repatriated in the first few months of 2005. Other countries took much longer to obtain dental records, on an individual basis, and use them in the Thai reconciliation process to establish identity.
Outcome & developments
More than 5000 people died and nearly 3000 were missing after the tsunami hit the coast of Thailand. In the two years after the event over 3600 of the deceased had been positively identified by the DVI process using one or more of the primary biometric identifiers.
In the 17 years since this disaster there have been significant developments not only in terms of scientific advancements e.g. DNA extraction and profiling technologies but also in the processing power and accuracy of the biometric search algorithms that are available to DVI specialists today.
ID Transnational Consulting
Member of the Advisory Council, Biometrics Institute