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Identifying bodies a gruesome, difficult task

Leading forensic pathologist discusses why many may never be recognized
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With the death toll from Katrina continuing to rise, officials are struggling with the difficult job of identifying the dead.  Dr. Cyril Wecht, one of the country's leading forensic pathologists, he joined 'The Situation with Tucker Carlson' on Tuesday to discuss how experts go about this complex task.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CARLSON:  Why why is it more difficult to identify the dead in the aftermath of this disaster than it is typically when people die?

WECHT:  These bodies, for the most part, have been decomposing now for about, what, two weeks.  Temperatures above 90 degrees, very high humidity.  Many of the bodies floating in water, which, of course, then, adds to the decomposition, particularly that kind of warm, brackish water. 

The bodies become bloated, gaseous distension, as a result of the bacterial infestation.  The discoloration is very, very intense, mottled.  Don't want to get more graphic.  I will tell you...

CARLSON:  It's pretty graphic. 

WECHT:  It's impossible to differentiate between Caucasian, African-American and Asian, with bodies like this, as strange as that may seem.  Tattoos and other skin markings, surgical scars will be gone, because of skin slippage, and post-mortem decomposition of the underlying subcutaneous tissues.  Everybody will essentially look pretty much like another. 

CARLSON:  In just that short a time?  It's only been, what, two weeks?

WECHT:  Yes.  That's a long time in that kind of environment. 

Then you have got the additional problems of geography.  You don't have geographic identification, so to speak, except in some instances like the 40, 45 bodies found in a nursing home.  Even there, while they'll know who the 45 are, to determine who was Mr. X and who was Mr. Y, will be difficult, but what if you find a body floating on Royal Street, where did it come from?

Then you don't have dental and medical records to chart, so those who would help in determining these kinds of things in an airplane crash or even in 9/11, and in some huge conflagration.  Those opportunities are not available to you here, because of the absence of records in many instances. 

CARLSON:  What about DNA testing, then?

WECHT:  Yes.  What they're doing is they are taking a piece of the tibia, the shin bone, and they'll have that for mitochondrial DNA.  That's the matrilineal.  It's not anywhere near as precise as regular DNA. 

DNA, for the most part, too, by the way, is obfuscated and negated by the decomposition of the soft tissues.  But the portion of bone will enable them, if they have, then, something to compare to later on, mitochondrial DNA, and probably for most purposes will be good enough. 

So they will have to see about getting something from someone, from the mother's side of that family, and check to see if this is Mr. X or Mrs. Y.
It's a situation that we have never encountered in this country because every time there has been some huge tragedy, of some kind, cyclone, tornado, hurricane, a flood, fire, explosion, you've pretty much known or come to know who was there, and you also have those geographic parameters. ... But you don't have this. 

CARLSON:  But also, if I could point out, that typically authorities who run cities have the decency to pick dead bodies up off sidewalks when they have the chance to, and the New Orleans authorities weren't decent enough to do that we witnessed firsthand.  Tell me: is it possible that some of these bodies will never be identified?  No one will know who they were.

WECHT:  Yes.  That is absolutely going to be the case, because many of these people will not have close relatives who will come forward.  Many of these people will not have a relative to trace back for DNA comparison purposes. 

Some of the bodies will have become so decomposed and traumatized, even, I do expect that there will be a fair number of bodies that will never be identified. 

I agree with the statement that you just made a moment ago, Tucker, and I'm not looking to place blame.  It's not for me to do that.  But from what I've read and heard, it does not seem that the retrieval of these bodies and the storage in refrigerated units is occurring as quickly as one would think it would... 

CARLSON:  No.  ... We saw people, police officers, members of the National Guard sitting around drinking bottled water and Diet Coke with dead bodies directly in front of them.  They made no effort to pick them up and bring them to a refrigerated facility. 

WECHT:  Really?

CARLSON:  It was just disgusting and it bothers me to this moment.