Photos of the missing in Thailand are posted on bulletin boards outside the Tsunami Victims Assistance Center.

Accounting group
using DNA expertise

PHUKET, Thailand » At the Tsunami Victims Assistance Center, unanswered questions hang in the air around the bulletin boards where family members have posted pictures of missing friends and relatives.

On assignment

Star-Bulletin reporter Craig Gima is traveling through Southeast Asia to report on tsunami relief efforts.

The photos -- a haunting reminder of lives probably lost -- mean there are lives in limbo, families holding on to hope, however faint, unwilling to accept death without proof.

The large crowds of family members that gathered here daily right after the tsunami are gone now. The people who show up are sometimes friends continuing the search or, as in the case of a visitor earlier in the day, a brother who believes his sister needs his help.

"If his sister is dead, he doesn't want to know now," said Verity Cattan-Poole, a volunteer at the center who speaks both Thai and English. "He wants to find her. He thinks possibly that she's somewhere and lost her memory, and he wants to be there to help her."

"In their heart of hearts, I think they know," Cattan-Poole said. But "if you have a loved one who has died, you need closure."

A little more than two hours north of the center, an international team of forensic scientists that includes members of the Hawaii-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command are trying to bring closure to families.

JPAC is best known for its work in recovering and identifying the remains of U.S. service members from Vietnam and other wars. But it has deployed teams before to disasters, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon, the Korean Air crash in Guam and the bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.

Two teams of eight people, including a forensic anthropologist, a forensic dentist and mortuary affairs specialists, have been helping the Thai government identify and recover the bodies of more than 5,300 people who died in the tsunami.

Most of the work is done at Wat Yan Yao, a Buddhist temple about two hours north of Phuket. JPAC also helped coordinate the delivery of supplies and materials such as lights and tents from the U.S. military's relief effort and is helping to set up a temporary morgue, donated by Norway, near the Phuket airport.

On Wednesday, JPAC members joined thousands of Buddhist monks at a candlelight service at a stadium in Takua Pa, a city in the province north of Phuket where about 4,000 people died.

Organizers said the memorial service was multidenominational, offering prayers to comfort survivors and to help those who died find happiness and peace in the afterlife.

Many of the team members are now returning to Hawaii. A smaller group will remain for an undetermined time.

At a briefing in Hawaii earlier this month, Gen. Montague Winfield, the commander of the unit, said his men and women were prepared to go when they saw the extent of the tsunami devastation.

Winfield said they had just finished a plan on how to deploy quickly in the event of mass casualties anywhere in the world.

Still, while the JPAC team members had planned what to take and to get their equipment there in the event of an emergency, "nobody can adequately or fully prepare for something of this magnitude," said Dr. Robert Mann, deputy scientific director at JPAC.

"In this situation here, you're going to be dealing with a lot of children, and a lot of people here have kids," he said.

Mann, who was at the same briefing as the general, said the forensic scientists in Hawaii are experts at extracting and using DNA to identify remains. They are also bone and teeth experts.

Bone structure, Mann explained, can show whether a person is of Caucasian or Asian descent, a man or a woman. Dental records also can help with identification when fingerprints are not available.

"Everybody is given a name when you are born, and everybody should have a name when you die," Mann said. "That's what we do."

East-West Center Tsunami Relief page
American Red Cross Hawaii
Red Cross survivor locator
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

U.S. Pacific Command

E-mail to City Desk


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