Ria Ekkelkamp, a middle-A MIDDLE-aged Dutch woman, has a gap between her two front teeth. Norwegian toddler Ragnar Bang Ericsson has a small triangular birthmark on his lower back. Jacobo Hassan, a Mexican man, has an Ishaped scar below his right knee. Chie Machida, a Japanese woman, wears a pink-jeweled navel ring.
Emblems of individuality in life, those distinguishing characteristics have become crucial clues in determining whether loved ones missing since the waves hit are among the dead. Across Asia, massive numbers of bodies remain unidentified. So while relief agencies descend on the disaster areas to rush aid to survivors, forensic investigators from around the globe are sifting through the deceased, doing the grim work that follows every human catastrophe. In Thailand experts have begun a disaster-victim-identification (DVI) operation of unprecedented scale and complexity, involving more than 300 investigators from 30 countries--many of whom have worked together in the aftermath of wars, natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But even the most seasoned forensic experts say they are overwhelmed. "We've never been involved in anything of this magnitude," says Johnie Webb, a senior adviser for the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, an agency set up to find and identify missing U.S. soldiers that is helping the Thai-led effort. "9/11 pales in comparison."
The challenge of identifying the corpses is compounded by the bodies' disfigurements. By the time they reach the morgues, most are so decomposed that it's difficult even to determine their ethnicity. At Yan Yao Temple, a makeshift morgue near the worst-hit resorts of Khao Lak, forensic experts in protective clothing and masks are working 18-hour days, pacing through wreaths of vapor from the dry ice used to preserve the decomposing bodies. Each corpse is numbered; under standard international practice, the bodies must then be positively identified via dental records, fingerprints or DNA before they are released to the families. Forensic dentists remove teeth or parts of the jaw for lab tests. Biopsies are taken for DNA testing, and fingerprints are lifted. Relatives supply samples of their own DNA in the form of blood and mouth swabs and provide other antemortem information such as the victims' medical records. Unique marks--moles, scars, tattoos--can also prove decisive in making a positive identification. All these data are fed into computers at the DVI Information Management Center in Phuket, which tries to match victims to families. "It isn't rocket science," says Robert Jensen, president of Houston-based disaster-management firm Kenyon, which is doing forensic and mortuary work. "It's harder than rocket science because it's blended with human emotion."