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FBI software sped up identifying factory fire victims

/ 05:18 AM July 13, 2015

WHAT was initially thought to be a task that would require up to two months to complete took only days, cutting short the wait for families who lost loved ones in the May 13 footwear factory inferno in Valenzuela City.

The DNA-based identification process for the dead in the Kentex fire may be considered “one of the fastest in Philippine history,” according to Deputy Director Emmanuel Aranas of the Philippine National Police Crime Laboratory.

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On the day of the fire, only three of the 74 casualties were immediately identified while the rest of the charred remains were temporarily interred less than 48 hours later in a public cemetery, their tombs marked only with numbers pending DNA tests.

On May 28 or 15 days after the tragedy, the PNP’s Scene of the Crime Operatives (Soco) unit was able identify 60 more bodies. On June 11, eight more were identified, bringing the total to 71. Earlier this month, the PNP identified all but one as the lone unidentified body, according to Aranas, was too badly burned for the retrieval of DNA samples.

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Of the total number of fatalities, 28 were males while 45 were females. The police have yet to determine the gender of the last unidentified victim.

Among those affected by the grim confirmation was Bienvenido Falalimpa, who was finally told with certainty that his son Jessie was among the Kentex workers who perished.

“It’s painful (to hear it now) because I was still hoping he survived,” said Bienvenido who hails from Pasi, Iloilo province.

Before the fire took away his son, their family was still bearing the scars from another mass killer that struck two years earlier. When Supertyphoon “Yolanda” lashed Central Visayas and destroyed their home in 2013, Jessie promised to help “fix our house,” he
recalled.

Chief Insp. Lorna Santos, head of the PNP Crime Laboratory’s DNA branch, said a software developed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was used to identify the victims.

The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a software donated to the PNP by the US government, made it easier and faster to identify the bodies, she added.

Still, the process began with the rather simple method of taking buccal swab samples from the cheeks or mouth cavity of the victims’ relatives. Samples were taken from an average of three relatives per victim.

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Forensic experts then took DNA samples from the victims’ remains and encoded them into an index with those taken from the relatives, Santos explained. The CODIS software then found matches between the DNA profiles of the living and the dead.

The software was first used in identifying the more than 100 victims of a sea collision in Cebu City—between the passenger ferry St. Thomas Aquinas and the cargo ship Sulcon Express Seven—in August 2013, she said.

The cooperation of the relatives and the Valenzuela City government also made the identification process easier. Further confirmations were made based on the personal items recovered from victims  such as jewelry or fragments of clothing.

Valenzuela Mayor Rexlon Gatchalian said the city government would soon meet with the grieving families in small groups to help them if they wish to exhume the now-identified bodies from Arkong Bato Cemetery for cremation or reburial in their home provinces.

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TAGS: DNA tests, FBI, Fire, Kentex fire
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