Fifty—that is how many bags with body parts came to the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology in Colombo after the devastating bomb attacks of April 21. The job was so complex that it was feared some of the dead may never be identified. But on July 30, the remains of 21-year-old Suraj Nilanga, who [...]


Easter bombings: Humanising forensic identification


Fifty—that is how many bags with body parts came to the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology in Colombo after the devastating bomb attacks of April 21. The job was so complex that it was feared some of the dead may never be identified.

Working with body parts

But on July 30, the remains of 21-year-old Suraj Nilanga, who was a waiter at the Shangri-La Hotel, were released to his family. His whole life fit into a small box. But that little casket meant everything to his grieving relatives.

Suraj was the last person from areas under the Institute’s jurisdiction to be named as a fatality. Till then, he was listed as missing. Everyone from the explosions around Colombo is now accounted for. There are 122 dead from St Anthony’s in Kochchikade, the hotels and the house in Dematagoda. These include the bodies of all suicide bombers and of foreigners.

It was a herculean task. And Suraj’s family may never have gained closure had the Institute not, for the first time in Sri Lanka, implemented the ‘Guidelines for the Management of Dead in Disasters and Catastrophes’. In the past, such human remains went into graves and certificates of absence–not of death–were issued to the relatives. Now, even body parts get their due dignity and respect.

Fatalities started arriving at the Institute soon after the explosions. A team was deployed to St Anthony’s Church because that had the largest number of victims. Other bombsites were handled by responders like the police and Special Task Force (STF).

Ironically, just a few weeks before Easter Sunday–on March 29–the Health Ministry’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Unit (DPRU) conducted its annual drill, simulating a bomb explosion. The Guidelines for the Management of the Dead were practised for the first time. This served in good stead because the system, already oiled, now moved like clockwork.

Nevertheless, the cataclysmic events of Easter Sunday took a heavy toll on the staff of the Institute, commonly known as the Colombo Chief Judicial Medical Officer’s (JMO) base. “The staff worked throughout the night,” said Dr Ajith Tennakoon, Chief Consultant JMO (Colombo) and the Institute’s Head. “The first week, we had no rest at all. Our photographer even slept here. And I would go home for an hour or two at a time.”

“We deal with dead bodies but this was something extraordinary,” Dr Tennekoon continued. “It was unexpected. Everybody was living peacefully and, suddenly, it happened.” What’s more, this was a man-made disaster–a crime, requiring proper death investigation, accurate identification and collection of forensic evidence.

Handling so many fatalities and the extent of damage left them disturbed. They only felt better when the Institute held a workshop to offer them support. Psychologists who conducted the session offered suggestions for dealing with such events in future, minimising the impact on employees.

Following the Guidelines meant that bodies were no longer laid on the floor for relatives to step over and pick their own–“like a fish market”.

“Everybody wants to give last rites to their loved ones,” said Dr Tennekoon. “That is why the management of dead in disasters in a respectful and dignified way is an internationally accepted concept now.”

The programme is supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sri Lanka, which works closely with the Institute and other health sector bodies. Among those specially trained by the Health Ministry’s DPRU in management of the dead were ten STF personnel who swung into action on Easter Sunday.

The team that went to Kochchikade photographed the fatalities in situ, put them in body bags (supplied by the ICRC), tagged them and transported them to the Institute. Working there were ten consultant JMOs including senior lecturers of the Medical Faculty, two forensic odontologists and postgraduate trainees in forensic medicine. The STF helped handle bodies.

The bodies were photographed again: their faces, any other identifiable features (tattoos, scars, any evidence of surgical procedures, deformities, birthmarks and so on) and the valuables they wore. These were saved on a computer. The dead kept coming. The same process was followed.

They went into body bags secured with interlocking systems, were given unique reference numbers and stored away in freezers or cool room.

Bodies of those who appeared to be foreigners were sent to the cool room straightway as it was clear the relatives would take time to arrive. In the end, 41 foreign nationals were named. The identification of seven was confirmed through DNA testing, nine by dental data and five from fingerprints.

Francis Road was closed off with high security because of fears of an attack there. Nobody that had no reason to be there was allowed in. The media, that did gain access, complied with requests not to show the faces of dead bodies.

Around 3pm, the Institute started displaying the photographs on a screen in a room where anxious relatives were gathered. After provisional identification, the Institute’s staff recovered the tag numbers and took down personal data from the family members, including what the deceased had worn when they left the house.

Each body bag was traced and taken to a separate body viewing area. “Before showing it to the family, we cleaned the face, removed debris and closed up injured areas,” Dr Tenenkoon said. “Only the relatives of that particular dead boy were let in. It was not an exhibition.”

After positive identification, the body was taken to the mortuary dissection room. A team of Magistrates was at the Institute, speedily meeting legal requirements for autopsies. The bodies were then released to the relatives along with valuables.

At all stages, families were accompanied by psychologists and psychiatrists. This provided particular comfort in the event only a single person came in search of a victim. Those who needed further assistance were identified and directed to clinics.

From the second day, a mobile freezer container was hired through the DPRU. Temporary shelters were set up for waiting relatives. Volunteers and agencies regularly offered refreshments. And from the third day, officers from the Department of the Registrar General issued death certificates on site. Ten days after the bombings, 115 “relatively intact” dead bodies were released.

There were people who could not spot their family members among photographs but were sure they had been at one of the locations. “So, we started a list of missing people and collected their data,” Dr Tennekoon said. “We gave them transport to the Government Analyst’s Department to provide samples for DNA testing. We wanted DNA profiles to compare with those from body parts.”

The body parts were complicated. Work started only after bodies were handed over. Each sample “with a distinct function”–some were very small, like a finger–was photographed and three samples extracted for DNA. Bone, muscle and nails were taken. These were then X-rayed, tagged and bagged before being sent to the Government Analyst.

Ten people were initially listed as missing. Two were found alive. One was in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the Colombo South Teaching Hospital. The other was in the National Hospital ICU but was beyond recognition as a result of burns and could also not speak. Identification was proven through a DNA match.

Six other missing people were paired with body parts. Suraj was one of them. The remaining two are alive and believed not to have been affected by the bombs.

The efforts of the Institute and all those who contributed earned praise from the Director General of Health Services and many foreign missions.

US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz wrote to Dr Tennakoon affirming that they “protected the dignity of our citizens and assisted their family members in the beginning of the grieving process”.

Genesis of the guidelines

The drafting of ‘Guidelines for the Management of Dead in Disasters and Catastrophes’ was initiated after consultative meetings with the Health Ministry’s Disaster Preparedness and Response Unit, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) and the Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology in collaboration with the College of Forensic Pathologists. The Institute led the process with financial assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A working group comprising forensic and legal experts, military, police, Fire Brigade Department, DMC and ICRC drew up the Guidelines.

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