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Families wait for news of tsunami victims

Building DNA profiles will take weeks Keystone

Swiss victim identification teams have returned from Thailand but the painful process of matching the living and the dead goes on in Switzerland.

This content was published on January 28, 2005 - 14:45

To date cantonal police have gathered DNA samples and medical records for 70 Swiss – half the number listed as missing in the Asian tsunami disaster.

Police across the country have been collecting personal data since the beginning of the month when they received the first lists of names from the foreign ministry.

Officers have been visiting the homes of the missing to pick up items likely to contain DNA, such as toothbrushes, as well as tracking down dental records, X-rays and medical files. They have also taken blood samples from relatives.

Latest figures from the foreign ministry put the official Swiss death toll at 23, with 135 listed as missing.

Police are still trying to verify reports of another 40 people said to have disappeared.

“We hope that the majority of these are still alive,” said Arnold Bolliger, vice-director of the Federal Police Office and chief of staff for international relations and crisis management.

Ongoing process

Bolliger told swissinfo that the process of gathering information in Switzerland was progressing well, despite a few hiccups.

While some files have been completed within 24 hours, others are taking longer because medical records or relatives are abroad.

“In some cases it’s not that easy to get all the information, especially dental records,” said Bolliger.

“Sometimes the person’s dentist is on vacation or we are told that the person travelled outside the country for dental treatment, say to Hungary, for example.”

“We also need material or blood to make a DNA profile, and in some cases there are no relatives in Switzerland.

“In one instance a person’s brother was living in the United States and we had to approach the local police there to take some blood and send it back to Switzerland.”

Hold-ups

Despite hold-ups of this nature, the Federal Police Office believes it will be able to complete the bulk of its work within the next two weeks.

But while the work of collating personal data is nearing completion, it will be some time before DNA samples and dental records from Switzerland can be matched with data collected in Thailand.

Most of the Swiss missing and dead were on holiday in Thailand when the tsunami struck on December 26.

“All the material from the dead bodies [in Thailand] is being sent to China, and the Chinese will produce the DNA profiles,” said Bolliger.

“But this process will take weeks, because they have to produce about 3,000 DNA profiles.”

Dental records

Bolliger said the Thai authorities had already begun trying to match dental records, but were facing a shortage of forensic dentists to carry out the work.

“I cannot give a date when we will finish the [identification] work. In my opinion it will take weeks, even months, before we get information about the identification of a person. It’s very hard for the families,” he added.

Personal files are being sent to a special police unit in the capital Bern, where data is checked to ensure it complies with international standards.

Once this process is completed, the files are passed on to the Thai authorities who are coordinating the identification process.

Eventually, medical data will be compared with the post-mortem samples taken in Thailand by the various Disaster Victim Identification teams.

Decomposing bodies

In all, 41 specialists from Switzerland – police officers, pathologists, and forensic dentists – were involved in the grim task of collecting bone samples and X-rays of teeth from around 300 decomposing bodies in the resort of Krabi, near Phuket.

The Swiss, who were among the first to arrive on site, worked alongside experts from Chile, Britain, Italy, Israel, Japan, Canada, Portugal and Spain.

Forensic pathologist Christoph Markwalder, medical director of the Swiss Disaster Victim Identification mission in Thailand, said the operation had been a success despite the difficult conditions.

But he echoed Bolliger’s comments, saying the identification process still had some way to go.

“These DNA samples have not been tested yet or are in the testing process,” Markwalder told swissinfo.

“Afterwards all these results have to be stored electronically, and this will take some time.”

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

In brief

More than 200,000 people are believed to have died in the Asian tsunami, triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26.

The number of confirmed Swiss dead stands at 23.

135 Swiss are listed a missing and investigations are continuing into another 40 people reported to have disappeared.

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