An Australian expert about to join an international MH17 disaster victim identification team expects the task will resemble his work after the Black Saturday bushfires.
Forensic pathologist David Ranson left Melbourne for Amsterdam on Tuesday to join the international team in the grim task of identifying the 298 people killed in the MH17 disaster.
Professor Ranson, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) deputy director, has identified victims of the Boxing Day tsunami, the Bali bombing and the Kosovo war, and sees similarities between MH17 and the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
“I think the process is very similar to the work we did in the Victorian bushfires,” he told AAP.
“I imagine that there will be a number of bodies – some of those will be intact and some will be non-intact, and we will be using similar methods.”
A mortuary technician and two odontologists (specialists in identifying victims from dental records) from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and a Victoria Police fingerprint expert will join Prof Ranson and the remainder of the Australian contingent.
He said the team will gather dental and pathology specimens, examine jewellery, personal effects and photograph tattoos and other marks, collect medical records and comparable DNA from the victims’ home countries based on the MH17 passenger manifest and combine the lab and external records to make formal identifications.
The international forensic team will take care to manage the physical and psychological health of its members, he said.
“We are used to death and we are trained to deal with the families, deal with the medical practitioners, and the other people we gather information from,” he said.
“Clearly with a situation like this, the stress will be escalated, so it’s very important that staff are not over-stretched and that they are given time to rest so that the quality of their work and their health is not affected.”
Examining the evidence
“What exactly are they trying to hide?” US President Barack Obama asked as he demanded that Ukrainian rebels give investigators access to the wreckage of the downed jetliner.
The answer is: potentially a lot.
Aviation and defence experts say the victims’ bodies could contain missile shrapnel. Chemical residue on the plane could confirm the type of weapon that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. And the location of the wreckage could yield information on how the attack unfolded.
The black boxes could offer vital clues as well. The cockpit voice recorder would record the bang of a missile. The data recorders, which register altitude and position, would be able to tie that information to the timing of a known missile launch in the area.
“You can effectively backtrack and give a relatively high degree of confidence in the location where that missile took off from,” said a British based aviation industry consultant, Chris Yates.
“If that location happens to be in rebel-held territory, which we all suspect it is, that would be the first point where you could point the finger of blame.”
“What is gained, of course, is the possibility that whatever evidence remains of a missile strike can be obliterated.”
But while anguished families waited to take possession of their loved ones’ remains, independent observers warned that the pro-Moscow separatists had tampered with the debris and failed to secure the crash site. And the US and its allies fumed that the rebels are trying to cover up evidence they shot down the plane.
Yates warned that the rebels may have already compromised the probe.
“What is gained, of course, is the possibility that whatever evidence remains of a missile strike can be obliterated,” he said. “That’s the bottom line, I suppose.”
In this still mysterious tragedy, for example, the bodies themselves could offer precious clues. A missile from a Russian-made SA-11 mobile launcher, also known as a Buk, would explode outside the target aircraft, hurling shrapnel into the plane. Some bodies might bear the telltale wounds.
The monitors observed that one of the largest pieces of debris – apparently a large cone section – “had somewhat been split or moved apart”.
At the biggest site on Monday, “we did not see any perimeter security in the place”, Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told reporters in Donetsk.
On an earlier visit to one of the smaller impact sites, where the cockpit and beginning of the first-class section lay, the observers also witnessed apparent tampering.
“We observed workers there hacking into the fuselage with gas-powered equipment,” Bociurkiw said.
The alternative explanation for the slow pace of examination and restricted access to the site is simply that a war is going on, said Michael Desch, an expert on international security at the University of Notre Dame.
– with The New Daily, AAP and ABC