- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

PHUKET, Thailand — Ego-driven squabbles among foreign embassies and forensic teams have complicated the identification of tsunami victims who died at this popular beach resort, according to the head of a U.S. Marine Corps search-and-recovery team.

The situation was straightened out only after the Thai government stepped in and ask all foreign forensic teams to come together under one agreed-upon procedure, Capt. Michael L. Craighead said.

“I can tell you, it’s getting better. All the embassies now are starting to work together. All the teams are starting to work together,” said Capt. Craighead of the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).

“So everybody has put their egos aside, and they are trying to make this work and get these bodies home to their families.”

In the early days of the recovery operation, “Everybody wanted to be the boss,” said Capt. Craighead, 35, a Pittsburgh native.

“So you had problems, until the government stepped in and said, ‘Look, this is what I asked you to come here to do, and that’s to help to identify the bodies, and we need to be of one accord,’” he said.

Even the Thai government was embarrassed last week when a turf war over the identification of foreigners erupted between police and a top forensic expert.

Porntip Rojanasunan, deputy director of the Justice Ministry’s Central Institute for Forensic Science, has worked around the clock since the Dec. 26 tsunami to identify and preserve about 4,000 corpses so far located around Phuket.

International forensic teams, the media and others have praised her tireless efforts to coordinate DNA sampling, refrigeration of cadavers, databases of names and other work.

Last week, however, Police Gen. Nopadol Somoonsub, a “police legal adviser,” blasted Dr. Porntip’s role, saying police should be overseeing the forensic work, not her. He demanded that she turn over all her information to Thai police and an international Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) center that was opened last week by Europe-based Interpol.

“It is a police job by law,” the police general said. “Other agencies [handling corpses] do not understand the protocols. … They have also confused the public with their incorrect information through the media.”

Dr. Porntip responded saying, “If they want to do the job, let them come and take the corpses themselves. I just want to send those bodies home, not to fight with any people in power.”

On the American side, the identification work is being assisted by the team from JPAC, which was established in 2003 by merging a 30-year-old U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory and a Joint Task Force Full Accounting unit in Hawaii.

The agency, established to account for Americans who disappeared in U.S. wars or were captured as prisoners of war, has developed a high level of expertise from sending teams to dig up bones of U.S. troops in Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

“Laos and Vietnam are pretty much scripted. We know who we are going to find. We have an idea of a search area,” Capt. Craighead said, comparing his search-and-recovery work there with the raw and chaotic scenes in Thailand.

“With this thing here, the mass casualties, you really don’t know what you’re going to find from day to day. That’s the big difference. Every day is something new.

“You really don’t know who you’re going to identify, who those people are, but your job is to help them out,” he said.

At least 5,291 persons perished in Thailand during the tsunami, and Thai officials said half of those were foreigners.

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