Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Talks planned to improve victim identification

AP , Phuket, Thailand

A US-based company helping to repatriate the bodies of foreign tsunami victims in Thailand said yesterday that a lack of coordination among governments and a shortage of capacity to do DNA testing are hampering identification efforts.

Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc., based in Houston, Texas, has called for a meeting of representatives from victims' countries, including Britain, Sweden and Germany, early next month in the Thai capital of Bangkok to devise ways of improving forensics procedures.

The most critical problem is the absence of a centralized laboratory to analyze DNA samples taken from the corpses to compare with those sent from victims' family members abroad, said Robert Jensen, the company's president.

"Nations have to agree on supporting one lab to do some of this work, and as yet they haven't done that because they haven't gotten together to address the issue because it needs funding," he said at a Kenyon facility here where at least 1,000 corpses are stored.

Some labs in Thailand and other countries have been conducting DNA tests, but they are unaccustomed to handling such a high number of bodies and the complex cross-referencing techniques used to compare multiple sets of genetic data, he said.

"It's different when you get on scene and handle mass fatalities," said Jensen. "It is too difficult for the labs' capabilities."

Millions of dollars are required to fund a lab and software to help process forensic records, but governments also need to standardize the format in which they submit victims' data.

They also need to decide on uniform and consistent research methods used by international forensics experts rotating every two to three weeks at morgues and a victim identification center here, he said.

For more than a month, scientists and police teams from more than 20 nations have been collecting fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples at a center on this resort island to build a database that will help them identify bodies and remains.

Hundreds of corpses have already been sent back to their home countries, but thousands more remain unidentified.

The huge waves that barreled across the Indian Ocean killed some 5,395 people in Thailand, many of them foreign tourists vacationing at the country's famous beach resorts. Another 2,991 people are listed as missing.

The process of identifying the dead and finding the missing has been slow and difficult. Many of the corpses were found in water and rapidly decomposed in the hot tropical environment.

Some European nations have complained to Thai authorities that it's taking too long to return the bodies of their citizens. Bickering has also erupted among Thai officials over the handling of the identification process.

"This is not going away, this is not going to end quickly, and governments have to take action," Jensen said. "But first they have to get together and agree on action as a group."

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