- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

PHUKET, Thailand — Forensic experts from around the world yesterday opened what is being called the world’s largest disaster-victim-identification center here as Thai workers began exhuming hundreds of bodies of victims from the tsunami disaster last month.

According to press reports, more than 800 cadavers — out of more than 5,000 killed in Thailand — were buried in shallow graves without confirmed identification. Some bodies were cremated after they were identified.

“This is the world’s first such integrated operation using the world’s best and latest technology and specialist expertise from all over the world,” Agence France-Presse quoted Australian police Inspector Jeff Emery, who heads the victim information center, as saying.

About 60 international experts will man the center, which is squeezed onto the third floor of a telecommunications company building. The center will work with dental records, fingerprints and DNA samples. About 400 forensic personnel from at least 30 countries were thought to be in Thailand to help with the operation.

Mr. Emery said it could take nine months or more to complete the process.

“This is a very, very large operation; a large number of people have died. The process must be very thorough,” he said. “We cannot make mistakes in regards to identification.”

Thailand led all states stricken by the tsunami in the number of foreigners confirmed dead, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of foreigners to nationals affected. Of those confirmed dead, more than 1,700 were identified as Thais and more than 1,200 as foreigners, the bulk of them tourists.

Marine Col. Jim Reilly, who is coordinating the U.S. search operations here, said Thailand’s goal to identify every victim was admirable but unachievable.

“They want 100 percent accountability of the bodies, but I know it’s not possible. And if we have that level of expectation, we are going to be disappointed,” Col. Reilly told reporters.

Thai forensic teams buried the cadavers — including those of hundreds of foreign tourists — “to slow the decomposition” while conducting DNA tests, because refrigeration was not available for thousands of bodies recovered after the tsunami, said Neryl Lewis of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team.

Before the burial, the bodies had been stored in Buddhist temples, wrapped in cloth or plastic, packed in dry ice, or stacked outdoors in the tropical heat. After more than 4,000 corpses arrived by trucks at three main temples in worst-hit Phang Nga province just north of Phuket, Thai officials had to act soon to prevent the bodies from rotting before identification.

“They had to slow the decomposition process down … and … the best they could think of at the time [was] to put them in these shallow graves that were all clearly marked,” Miss Lewis said.

The Thai Interior Ministry said yesterday that 5,309 persons were confirmed dead, including 1,728 Thais and 1,240 foreigners, and that 2,341 bodies could not be identified.

The number of missing was estimated at 3,370, including 1,102 foreigners.

The final death toll from the Dec. 26 tsunami might change slightly, “but if we match the DNA tests of the dead and their relatives, we will likely find that the missing people are the unidentified dead,” Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula said.

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