A leading forensic pathologist has urged families, especially those living in disaster-prone areas, to keep files on each member’s distinguishing marks such as scars, tattoos and moles, and have copies of fingerprints and dental records on hand to make identification easier in case tragedy strikes.
Dr. Raquel del Rosario-Fortun of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine pathology department said the suggestion was prompted by the experience of a group of UP alumni who went to Iligan City last month to help find survivors of Tropical Storm “Sendong.”
Fortun said she was haunted by the photos of missing persons and the numerous corpses in varying states of decomposition awaiting identification that she saw in two funeral parlors.
Had there been more detailed descriptions accompanying the photos, it was possible the authorities would have been able to make faster matches with the corpses, she said.
Fortun, who joined Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III at the Kapihan sa Senado media forum last week, was part of a five-woman forensic team that volunteered their services in Iligan City for three days.
“All details (on one’s body) can potentially help. You cannot anticipate (incidents like this). Once the bodies are fragmented and markedly decomposed, details found in soft tissues, like moles and tattoos, are the first to go,” she said.
Other descriptions such as body piercings, height, weight, build and hair color can help. Even medical histories could provide vital leads.
“Locations of fractures are significant, especially when the soft tissues (are gone). A healed fracture could give us clues, so could postoperative scars,” Fortun explained.
“Once a body is retrieved, a possible match could be made (more quickly). Even a person’s handedness could help. An anthropologist could help us determine even (left- or right-handedness) of a headless body. These details taken altogether (could), at least, give presumptive identification clues,” she said.
Geologist and geohazard expert Mahar Lagmay, another UP alumnus, said Fortun’s suggestions were applicable even to families not living in known disaster-risk areas.
Lagmay said natural calamities had become so unpredictable that even those who believe they are out of harm’s way should take precautions.
Fortun said “definitive” information such as fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples provided the best clues.
However, as in the case of a family that brought along a missing relative’s NBI clearance that had his fingerprints, it would not be much help if the fingers had decomposed.
Fortun also recalled the case of a family that showed a photo of a missing man with decayed front teeth and a large mole near his lower lip.
“Obviously, since he had dental caries that were visible in photos, it could mean we could do away with dental records. But pictures of smiling people that show obvious facial characteristics are a big help,” she said.
Fortun noted that children comprised a large number of the flood victims.
“Children usually do not have fingerprint records. This is where dental records can become crucial. Although now I think that with mandatory newborn screening, they have DNA records on file,” she said.
Fortun said the authorities retrieving cadavers should also record where and how the bodies were found.
“Those areas should be treated as crime scenes since they could provide vital clues. In the case of Iligan, it would have helped if those who retrieved the bodies also noted the flow of the water, where the bodies had come from and, if possible, how many kilometers from the communities the bodies were found,” she said.
Fortun noted that while the National Bureau of Investigation was involved in national disaster efforts, it seemed that it was not coordinating with the Philippine National Police in collecting details about missing persons.
“Antemortem information would be useless if it cannot be compared with an examination of the dead. Here is where coordination comes in,” she said.