Disaster CSI, not 'sixth sense,' helps the dead tell their tales

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 23 2019 09:05 PM | Updated as of Jul 24 2019 08:08 AM

Forensic anthropologist Francisco Datar speaks at a short course on forensics organized by the University of the Philippines-Manila. ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Surrounded by the dozens who perished in an orphanage fire in the Philippine capital, forensic pathologist Raquel Fortun made sure the bodies were in their assigned coffins, unmindful of the eerie feeling that she was not alone.

The "sixth sense" experience in the Philippine capital’s old district 11 years ago is not uncommon for Fortun, one of only two forensic pathologists in the country, who helps grieving families identify their loved ones from mass casualties due to disasters both natural and man-made.

Much needs to be done for local authorities to properly identify the dead, said Fortun, who helped in the aftermath of the 1996 Ozone Disco fire that killed 162 people and Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in 2013, the world's deadliest storm on record that left 6,000 dead or missing.

"It would be helpful if I had a sixth sense, kasi ang dali, tatanungin mo lang yung multo, ano ba nangyari sa yo? sino pumatay sa yo. We have ways in forensic science," she told ABS-CBN News.

(It would be helpful if I had a sixth sense. It would be easier to just ask the ghost: What happened to you? Who killed you? We have ways in forensic science.)

Forensics experts, spanning multiple disciplines such as pathology, medicine, anthropology and disaster management gathered in a short course organized by the University of the Philippines-Manila, with the aim to stress the importance of mass casualty identification in the country.

"Importante ang buhay. Iiyak ka nanaman? Magpapanovena ka nanaman? Kasi mali ang bangkay. That's what happens when you do a lousy job," said forensic anthropologist Francisco Datar during his lecture late Tuesday.

(Life is important. You'll cry and pray the novena all over again because you got the wrong body? That's what happens when you do a lousy job)

Datar specializes in identifying dead bodies through their bones. "Bones won't debate with you, but we need to be able to know the language of the bones to understand them," he said.

Without science, such as DNA tests and matching dental records, Fortun said investigators can get clues from personal effects such as engravings on wedding bands, initials stitched onto underwear, ID cards in wallets and ornaments on mobile phones, she said.

Should registration be required for SIM cards, it could also provide clues on the identity of the dead.

It’s a "morbid tip" for the living, but keeping track of personal effects with identification marks can help in case one falls victim to disasters.

"It can happen to you," Fortun said during her lecture.

"What’s difficult is red tape and dealing with the living than examining the dead," she said.

Drawing blood and muscle from dead bodies before they are embalmed can help in DNA tests. Teeth can also be used, with molars as the best source, said Maria Corazon De Ungria, director of the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the National Sciences Research Institute.

Hair can’t be used unlike saliva. Bones are a "last resort" because investigators have to saw through them, she said.

"Like I always say, fresh is best. It gets harder as the body decomposes," Fortun said.

The UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences, College of Medicine and College of Dentistry organized the week-long lecture, held this year at a bigger venue to accommodate the large number of participants.

"It's not just about counting dead bodies and body bags," said anthropologist Tess de Guzman, chairperson of the UP Manila Department of Behavioral Sciences.

"We're not emotional, it's more of respecting our culture, the dignity of the individual," she told ABS-CBN News earlier.

For Fortun, who is active on Twitter as Doc4Dead, it is important to treat mass casualties first and foremost as human beings.

"I'm kind of detached in away but you cannot help but feel for the dead. I hope that never goes dahil mawawala ang pagkatao mo (you will lose your humanity) if you deal with the body as a body and not as a person