In order to appreciate the monumental task facing authorities in New Orleans and the surrounding area, here’s a scenario involving an event of a much smaller scale:

A flood rips through a much smaller town in the Mississippi Delta resulting in six fatalities. Rescue attempts during the first few hours of the flood lead to the discovery of two bodies. Body #1 was recovered from inside the cab of his pickup. A state driver’s license was located in the wallet found on the body and the photo matched the face of the deceased. Body #2 was recovered floating among vegetation. There was no identification present on the body, but fingerprints were taken and matched with those on file from a previous incarceration.

The remaining four bodies were not found until days after the flood because they had been washed to remote locations. The condition of all four of these bodies had been altered by the stages of decomposition, the effects of prolonged immersion, and animal activity. Being a small town, possible identities on the remaining four were surmised fairly easily based on missing person reports filed by surviving family members. Body #3 was identified using tattoos that were accurately described by the family.

The remaining three bodies had no form of identification. Visual identification even by an immediate family member was not possible because of the severe swelling to the facial tissues that occurs in the advanced stages of decomposition. Prolonged immersion had caused the epidermal layers of skin containing the fingerprints to separate from the dermis. These glove-like sections of skin tissue were either washed away or fed on by fish, turtles, or other creatures. The remaining printed images sometimes left behind on the dermis were insufficient for comparison.

Body #4 had extensive dental work and was identified using a postmortem dental comparison using antemortem dental charting and x-rays obtained from the deceased’s dentist. Body #5 was that of a young male in his early teens with no tattoos, no prints of file, and no dental work. Fortunately the deceased did have a cranial x-ray on file at an area hospital following a head injury the year before. A postmortem x-ray was taken and a positive identification was made using sinus pattern comparison.

Body #6 was the most difficult to identify. Authorities were unable to obtain prints from the deceased and there were no external identifying marks such as tattoos or scars present. The suspected family members of Body #6 reported that the deceased had not been to a dentist or a doctor in over twenty years. The body was recovered from a location that placed it in close proximity to the area it was last seen in. Based on the circumstances and the fact that there was only one person still unaccounted for, both family and law enforcement were willing to accept the identity of Body #6.

Ultimately though the burden of accurately identifying the dead falls on the shoulders of the person certifying the death, so the medical examiner/coroner must exhaust all available means of identification before resorting to a circumstantial identification. The decision was made to release the body to the family with the understanding that the identification was only circumstantial until a DNA comparison could be conducted. Tissue samples from Body #6 were submitted to a DNA lab along with buccal swabs obtained from immediate family members. Body #6 was positively identified several weeks later when DNA tests were completed.

Now let’s compare the above scenario with the reality of New Orleans:

Let’s say a flood rips through a much larger metropolitan area. Rescue attempts during the first few hours of the flood lead to the discovery of numerous dead bodies, but it is soon realized that collecting the dead should wait until the living are rescued. As a result, bodies that could have been fairly easily identified remain exposed to the elements and begin to decompose. The high temperatures ensure that the rate of decomposition is accelerated, and photographic and tattoo comparisons are no longer possible as everyone is the same color and similarly swollen. Fingerprints have been washed away from prolonged immersion or eaten away by critters that like small surfaces they can fit in their mouths.

A list of potential identifications of missing persons is almost impossible to come up with because the living have been scattered among cities all over the region. Dental and radiological exams can be conducted on the dead, but there is no guarantee that they’ve had dental work done or that the dentist or doctor’s office housing their records even exists anymore. A circumstantial identification pending a DNA test on one body or on a few bodies is manageable, but the reality is that there are likely going to be thousands of circumstantial identifications made in the coming days and weeks. Circumstantial identifications could likely become a necessary compromise for the time being. Ordinarily, medical examiners and coroners are tasked with determining cause and manner of death. In this instance and others like it, however, the primary concern is going to be accurately identifying the dead.


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