National ID system to help recognize disaster victims

By Caroline Howard, ANC

Posted at Dec 26 2011 01:02 PM | Updated as of Dec 27 2011 04:12 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The National Bureau of Investigation Disaster Victim Identification Team (NBI-DVI) believes a national ID system would help future efforts in identifying victims of disasters.  

Speaking on ANC's "Headstart," NBI Medico Legal Officer Doctor Wilfredo Tierra suggested the creation of a national database of medical and dental files to help future identification efforts.
 
"We also suggest to the national government, kahit government employees magka-dental exam by the city or municipal dentist for complete dental file." 
 
The suggestion came as NBI-DVI teams in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan enter the second stage of identifying victims of Tropical Storm Sendong disaster victims, which involves post-mortem or the full examination of dead bodies, checking of dental records, finger printing, and harvesting of DNA samples.
 
They have already completed the pre-operational phase, which involves the creation of makeshift morgues. 
 
After the second phase is completed, the team will move into ante mortem, which involves talking to relatives of the victims about the process, and harvesting samples for DNA analysis.
 
This is followed by the reconciliation phase, or matching data in the post-mortem and ante-mortem phases, informing the next of kin, and turning over the bodies to the families.
 
"After the reconciliation process, pag na-identify na sila, we can release the body and give it to the rightful claimant," said Tierra, who heads the NBI-DVI Team in CDO.
 
The NBI-DVI Team has dealt with some of the worst disasters in the country in recent history. 
 
These include: the sinking of the MV Doña Paz (July 2008), the Superferry 14 fire (February 2004), the Wowowee stampede (February 2006), landslides in Ginsaugon, Southern Leyte (February 2006). 
They also helped in the identification of more 8,000 people killed in the tsunami that struck Thailand in December 2004. 
 
Massive tragedy
 
Tierra admitted the scale of the tragedy brought about by Sendong is “massive.” 
 
"In a scale of 1 to 10, this is 10 with the number of casualties, the houses destroyed along with the economy of the city.  The tragedy is massive,” he said.
 
He noted their work is hampered by limited tools to properly identify the victims.
 
"It's very discouraging initially, because in this kind of case, almost all of the family members were wiped out, how do you compare the DNA sample? All the houses were destroyed. Nasaan ang fingerprints. Sino ang nakakaalam sa dentist ng taong ito," Tierra said on ANC's "Headstart."
 
They don’t only face the grim task of identifying the dead, but also explaining the process to relatives who lost their kin in the disaster, he said.
 
"Someone has to do this job to identify the dead bodies. When we reached CDO, we were really shocked, disturbed at the devastation and seeing dead people at the landfill.”
 
"Hindi nga po nakalinya, nakakalat lang, exposed to the environment. Nandoon yung scavengers, hayop sa landfill. Wala na bang value yung tao? Hindi dapat ganoon lang.  We suggested the hangar.”
 
He recalled some hard decisions he had to make including closing off viewing for flood victims' relatives in Cagayan de Oro to make room for more accurate scientific identification, and ruling out a mass burial in favor of a temporary burial for the unidentified remains.
 
They have already buried at least 88 bodies that have gone through proper processing.
 
Ethics
 
"It is not advisable for relatives to view... It was wrong ethically, professionally. There's no way you can identify the body in that state, so we closed the door to the relatives,” he said.
 
"This is a scientific process of identification. We don't want to commit mistakes. We don't want to give the wrong body to them. If we will be giving wrong bodies right away because of a hunch, we defeat our protocol of disaster victim identification,” he added.
 
He recalled the time he refused to honor a woman's pleas to claim her supposed husband's body by virtue of a wedding ring.
 
"Second identification yun, but not during primary identification phase. May pagkakapareho sa singsing, sa pangalan, tattoo. May limang magkakaibigan, same tattoo same age, built, nakita name plates wala na. Relatives were clamoring, but we didn't give in and resorted to more sensitive specific methods of identification,” he said.
 
While fingerprinting may be more economical, Tierra said DNA identification is more accurate. 
 
He noted the government is shouldering the cost of DNA identification estimated at P15,000 per victim. 
Tierra said they are unfazed by the monumental task aimed at eventually returning the bodies to the rightful claimants and giving the dead a dignified burial.