Forensic doc feels 'burned' after helping gov't

By Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at Dec 02 2013 01:53 PM | Updated as of Dec 02 2013 09:53 PM

Fortun on helping govt: Napaso na ako

MANILA - Dr. Raquel Fortun, a well-known forensic expert, will have to think twice next time the government seeks her help in identifying cadavers.

Fortun, who has been instrumental in identifying bodies in past tragedies, said she and her colleagues have been “burned” after being set aside five days after putting in place a system by which to identify the victims of super typhoon Yolanda.

“If the government asks for help? I don’t know. When I got in, I thought that was it. We had authorization from no less than the Office of the President to do something. If I had known on the fifth day they would just drop us, I would not have said yes. For future requests, I think I’ll have second thoughts, napaso na ako e,” she told ANC.

The forensic expert said a system is very important in identifying the thousands of bodies in areas affected by super typhoon Yolanda.

Fortun and her group started on November 18 but had to pack their bags after five days. This was after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) questioned their mode of identification.

NBI officer-in-charge Medardo de Lemos already apologized, noting it was only a misunderstanding between the two camps. Fortun was with experts from the Department of Health and World Health Organization, while the NBI sought the help of the Interpol.

Fortun said she does not know if there is a system in place right now after they left.

How hard is the task now? “Is it impossible? The answer should be no. You have to try and you have to be fast. With decomposition, you lose information. I don’t know what’s happening now. Have we not been stopped…we were already averaging 100 bodies a day," Fortun said.

Earlier, Fortun twitted the slow reporting of the casualties of Yolanda. President Benigno Aquino III was reported as saying, “It’s because you have to make sure that there is the certification or a coroner’s report before it is made official.”

In her Twitter account, she answered back: “Certification of a coroner’s report is needed before a body is counted? Do you know Mr. President that we don’t have coroners in the Philippines?”

She also said the system was better during President Gloria Arroyo’s time.

“Arroyo’s term may not have been spanking clean. But at least there was a sense that we were governed,” she noted.

“With former President GMA, you throw all the problems at her and she will deal with them. But the one who is sitting now is allergic to bad news,” she said.

Differences in system

Fortun said NBI already questioned their mode of identifying the bodies since they first met for a meeting on the deployment to Tacloban.

“The NBI was pushing for an Interpol kind. [That of] WHO is more practical…there was no systematic taking of DNA samples, [we] had no dental charting because we don’t even have dentists,” she said.

NBI wanted to do the routine process of gathering DNA, such as swabbing the insides of the mouth of the bodies, she explained.

“Why take routine DNA samples from each body. You can’t just do swabbing because the bodies are already decomposing and may have been contaminated.”

She said the best way to take the DNA is from the bones, but this is out of the question because of the thousands of bodies that they had to work on.

“Imagine the thousands of samples you have to deal with. These are forensic cases so you have to be careful in packaging and labeling. Where will you get your storage facility? How do you manage thousands upon thousands of bodies,” she asked.

She said their system was more basic and simpler.

“We get the basics. We [determine] the sex. Is it an adult or infant? We describe the clothes. For the dental records, it was just photography.”

The bodies are then buried temporarily in trenches, where there will be a numbering system.

A deduction method will then be in place. She said a group will be in charge of antemortem information, where relatives can describe the missing.

“Then maybe we’ll have a database. For example, we look at all male adults for recognition, personal effects. We determine where the bodies are buried. After that, the process becomes more definitive,” she explained.

She said the NBI system was “just not possible.”

She surmised: “I don’t even know if [they] have identified the agency that will do antemortem.”