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Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935

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The role of forensic anthropology in Disaster Victim Identication (DVI)

Soren Blau a,*, Christopher A. Briggs a,b
Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine and the Department of Forensic Medicine, Monash University, 57-83 Kavanagh St, Southbank, VIC 3006, Australia
Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology, University of Melbourne, 3010, Australia


Article history: This paper briey describes Disaster Victim Identication (DVI) and reviews the history of the use of
Received 22 April 2010 forensic anthropology in the identication process. The potential contributions made by forensic
Received in revised form 27 July 2010 anthropology are illustrated through the presentation of a case study. In February 2009 the state of
Accepted 28 July 2010
Victoria in south-eastern Australia experienced the most devastating bushres in its history, resulting in
Available online 24 August 2010
catastrophic loss of life and public and private property. Within 48 h of the disaster, forensic teams
including pathologists, odontologists and anthropologists assembled at the Victorian Institute of
Forensic Medicine in Melbourne to begin the task of identifying the deceased. This paper reviews the part
Forensic anthropology
played by forensic anthropologists in the identication process and outlines the important contribution
Disasters anthropologists can make to DVI, especially at the scene, in the mortuary and in the reconciliation
Identication process. The anthropologists experience with differentially preserved human remains meant they
played an important role identifying and recovering heavily fragmentary human skeletal remains,
differentiating human from non-human remains, establishing basic biological information such as the
sex and age of the individuals and conrming or denying the possibility of re-associating body parts for
release to families.
Crown Copyright 2010 Published by Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction event. The DVI procedures consist of ve phases: Phase 1: the

scene; Phase 2: the mortuary; Phase 3: ante-mortem data
The extreme weather conditions in Victoria, Australia leading collection; Phase 4: reconciliation and Phase 5: debrief. These
up to and on the 7th February 2009 resulted in the deaths of 173 phases cover the time directly following the disaster and up to the
people. A range of forensic medical and science experts were identication of the deceased. See [1] for a review of each of the
required to manage the search, location and analysis of the human ve DVI phases.
remains in an attempt to positively identify individuals. The aim of
this paper is to examine the role of forensic anthropology in a DVI 3. History of forensic anthropology in DVI
process and discuss the contributions this discipline made to the
February 2009 Bushre investigations. In highlighting the con- Forensic anthropology is dened as the eld of study concerned
tributions and limitations made by forensic anthropology to DVI with the examination of material believed to be human to answer
the paper will serve to broaden the educational awareness about medico-legal questions including those related to identication.
forensic anthropology for police, coroners, lawyers, emergency While there has been much written on the role of the forensic
workers and others involved in the DVI process. pathologist and odontologist in Disaster Victim Identication (DVI)
[2], Stewarts edited volume Personal Identication in Mass
Disasters is the rst account of the role of a forensic anthropologist
2. What is DVI? in the management of multiple deceased following a disaster [3].
Since this time, there has been an increased recognition of the role
Disaster Victim Identication (DVI) refers to the procedures the anthropologist can play in the multidisciplinary effort that is
used to positively identify deceased victims of a multiple casualty required to identify disaster victims [4,5]. For example, in North
America where institutions such as The Armed Forces Institute of
Pathology and the Disaster Mortuary Teams of the Public Health
Forensic medical response to the 2009 Victorian Bushres Disaster, Guest-
edited by Olaf H. Drummer and Stephen M. Cordner. Service employ forensic anthropologists [6,7] in Australia where
* Corresponding author. Tel.: +61 3 9684 4469; fax: +61 3 9682 7353. the Australasian Disaster Victim Identication manual includes
E-mail address: (S. Blau). protocols for anthropologists [8]; and in the UK, where anatomy,

0379-0738/$ see front matter . Crown Copyright 2010 Published by Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.
30 S. Blau, C.A. Briggs / Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935

forensic anthropology and DVI are brought together as part of gist may also play an important role in identifying the spatial-
training for the UK National Disaster Victim Identication (UK DVI) temporal relationships between the bodies and associated
team [9,10]. Criticism has been made of responses to mass evidence, including the body position and in determining the
disasters, such as the Asian tsunami, which failed to incorporate a numbers of individuals present [5,25]. Establishing whether there
forensic anthropologist [4]. is more than one individual present and if the remains are
In addition to the signicant contributions made by forensic commingled is important for the recovery process.
anthropologists to investigations of human rights violations [11
13] the skills of forensic anthropologists (see below) have been 4.2. Phase 2: mortuary
used in the examination of a range of different scale disasters
including light plane accidents [14] train crashes [15]; sieges [5], The role of the forensic anthropologist and his/her contribution
large scale terrorist attacks such as the 2001 World Trade Center to the mortuary phase will depend on the preservation of the
disaster [1618] and the Bali Bombings [19], as well as natural deceased. When forensic anthropologists have assisted in the
disasters such as hurricanes [20] and bushres (see below). investigation of mass disasters, they have been critical in a range of
analyses [16,26,27] including:
4. The role of a forensic anthropologist in a DVI
 separation of osseous from non-osseous material (potentially
Whether a result of human or natural circumstances, a disaster done in the eld and/or the mortuary);
is likely to involve a range of extreme forces such as heat (burning),  separation of human from non-human and non-bone material;
impact (G-force, wave), crushing (structure collapse), explosion, (anthropologists were required to distinguish human from non-
freefall (impact) and/or environmental inuences (temperature; human remains in the New York September 11 terrorist attacks
humidity; waterwarm, cold, salt, fresh; carnivore/rodent activi- on the World Trade Centre where many restaurants were located
ty) that all potentially impact on the condition of the body. in the area of the destruction);
Consequently, disasters resulting in mass fatalities commonly  separation of recognizable vs. non-recognizable fragments that
present a range of differentially preserved remains that may require DNA analysis; (retrieval and identication of soft tissue
include bodies and/or body parts that are: intact, fairly intact, fragments in the 2002 Bali incident, especially from individuals
decomposed, fragmentary, commingled, burned or cremated; thought to be at the epicentre of the explosion, contributed to the
partially burnt, distorted, buried or a combination of several of identication of many of the deceased);
these states of preservation [21] (see also [2]).  separation of commingled remains;
Practitioners involved in the location, recovery and analysis of  analysis of small fragments of bone from any region in the body;
deceased individuals following a disaster must, therefore, have  siding to left and right of skeletal fragments;
expertise not only in human anatomy but the taphonomic and  analysis of cross-sections of bone in soft tissue masses;
diagenetic processes of different variables (including burial, re,  analysis of incinerated remains with no soft tissue;
sun, salt, etc.) and the associated impact on the human body [22].
As part of routine casework, the forensic anthropologist commonly
Evaluation of the above enables the forensic anthropologist to:
examines remains in varying states of preservation: skeletonised
(with or without associated decomposing soft tissue, which is
 determine the minimum numbers of individuals present,
sometimes mummied); burned or otherwise damaged or altered
establish a biological prole (ancestry, sex, age, and/or stature)
including dismembered, or a combination of these conditions. The
of those individuals, and
forensic anthropologists experience dealing with a range of
 provide an opinion on ante-, peri- and post-mortem trauma.
differentially preserved skeletal remains means that they may
also play a role in assisting in the DVI process [23], specically in
Phases 1 (the scene), 2 (the mortuary) and 4 (reconciliation).
Involvement in Phase 3 (ante-mortem data collection) is, however, 5. The forensic anthropologist and DVI in an Australian
a regular feature of the forensic anthropologists role in human context: Bushre case study
rights and post-conict forensic investigations.
5.1. Phase 1: the scene
4.1. Phase 1: scene
Initial reports of numbers of individuals killed during the 7th
While there are comments in the literature that forensic February 2009 Victorian bushres (referred to as the Black
pathologists and anthropologists are not involved in the crime Saturday res) were conicting with gures ranging from 14 to
scene investigation; their activity is conned to the institute 3000 deaths, more than 3000 properties lost, 7000 people
premises [24], the benets of including both anthropologists and displaced and several towns completely destroyed (Trevor Blake,
pathologists at the scene are now well understood. Depending on DVI CBR Police Unit, Personal Communication 2009). In less than
the type of disaster and associated levels of preservation, the 48 h following the most devastating res in Australias history
forensic anthropologist may assist at the scene rst by identifying multidisciplinary teams including police, pathologists, anthropol-
the presence of skeletal remains. While police have the core ogists, odontologists, mortuary scientic and technical staff,
responsibility for Phase 1 responses, the presence of forensic photographers and scribes assembled from throughout the state
anthropologists experienced in differential preservation working and beyond and commenced examinations of the deceased in the
at disaster scenes is important to ensure remains that might mortuary at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM).
otherwise be unrecognizable and therefore overlooked are Ideally attendance of forensic anthropologist at the scene would
identied, collected and made available for further examination. have occurred in the days immediately following the Victorian
In the absence of this expertise the potential loss of evidence may disaster. However, in the case of the 2009 Victorian Bushres
impact on later phases of the process, especially the reconstruction Disaster there were 145 disparate scenes spread over an area of
of peri- and post-mortem events. Once skeletal remains have been approximately 4000 hectares (over 1 million acres, or more than
located the forensic anthropologist can assist in determining 1500 square miles) which meant there were multiple DVIs at one
whether the remains are in fact human. The forensic anthropolo- time (Fig. 1). Much of the state was still burning and in addition,
[(Fig._1)TD$IG] S. Blau, C.A. Briggs / Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935 31

5.2. Phase 2: the mortuary

The re-affected areas included not only bush land but also
heavily populated centers. Consequently, there were vast numbers
of completely and partially destroyed buildings, burnt-out
vehicles, and livestock and native animals killed by the re. While
the temperatures of the Black Saturday res were comparable to or
exceeded those reached during a cremation (c. 1000 8C), what was
remarkable was the length of time at which the res burned at
these or even higher temperatures. Unlike human remains in a
modern crematorium, which are subjected to intense heat for
approximately 1 h, after 45 h the bushres were still burning and
even after 24 h, temperatures recorded on some bodies were still
600700 8C (John Callaher, Arson Investigation Forensic Science
Centre personal communication 22/06/09) (see also [30] for
discussion on the effects on bone of time, temperature and oxygen
availably). In visiting one of the areas more than a week after the
Fig. 1. Map illustrating the widespread location of the res and associated numbers res, an investigation team found burning embers under animal
of fatalities (Reference: remains at the entrance to a site and at another site the oor of the
destroyed house was still too hot to kneel on. These consistently
high temperatures, combined with the duration of burning, had a
signicant impact on the preservation of the remains.

there were allegations that some res had been intentionally lit, 5.3. Preservation of remains
thus all sites had to be investigated as potential crime scenes.
The coordination of resources has been described as one of the As observed in many DVI situations [5] human remains
most challenging aspects of mass disaster scene processing [27]. recovered from the bushres scenes were signicantly differen-
Although there were numerous calls from police requesting the tially preserved and included relatively complete bodies, carbon-
presence of an anthropologist at scenes, provision of expertise in ized body parts (especially the large muscle masses of the back and
the mortuary was given a higher priority, particularly in the early thighs), identiable carbonized soft tissue blocks including heart
stages when the total death toll was being recongured on a daily and lungs, as well as fully skeletonised remains. While some
basis and few anthropologists were available. Unlike medico-legal skeletal elements were relatively intact others were heavily burnt,
institutions in countries such as the United States which employ often calcined, fragmentary and fragile (Fig. 2). Bones that
numerous forensic anthropologists [28] there are relatively few commonly survived and were subsequently available for identi-
practicing forensic anthropologists in Australia [29]. The situation cation included vertebrae, heads of radii, articular surfaces of
immediately following the 2009 Victorian Bushres Disaster was proximal aspects of femora and tibiae, as well as patellae and tali.
made more difcult by the fact that three of the most experienced Why the head of the femur should survive is understandable given
forensic anthropologists were deployed overseas engaged in work it is deeply located within the large muscle mass of the proximal
related activities. One of the briefs of the VIFM is to support the thigh, however survivability of the head of the radius is more
international development of forensic medical/science services difcult to explain and contrary to ndings elsewhere [5,31].
and to this end one of these anthropologists was coordinating a Carbonised remains were found in close proximity to calcined
Disaster Victim Identication course in Nepal while another was elements, probably inuenced by the thickness of subcutaneous
involved in the exhumation of human remains from a World War 2 tissue and body position in addition to proximity to the re. The
plane crash in Papua New Guinea. Therefore, because of the need to upper limbs commonly presented the pugilistic posture seen in
maximize resources in the rst week a protocol was quickly severe re-affected victims with related fractures of the mid-shaft
established in which it was decided an anthropologist would not of the radius and ulna. Distal segments of the lower limbs were also
attend all primary scenes but would instead be based in the severely incinerated often with related fractures of the tibia and
mortuary. Some primary scenes that had not been completely bula. However, a high percentage of major joint complexes,
investigated by the police were visited by multidisciplinary particularly the hip, were often intact and once opened up had
disaster teams, including an anthropologist, pathologist and measurable articular surfaces.
dentist, at the beginning of the second week when the pool of
available anthropologists had increased. 5.4. Examination of remains
Because of the huge scale of the res and the multiple-scenes
(which included 1886 destroyed homes and 760 destroyed The role of the forensic anthropologist in a DVI is no different to
vehicles) as well as the inability in the rst days to obtain a that in routine casework (see above). However, in order to deal
denitive number of missing, within a week the Coroner issued a with large numbers of differentially preserved remains, it is
Restricted Access Order on the six main re burn areas, which necessary to be able to quickly identify fragments which provide
required destroyed and partly destroyed structures to be searched the most useful information for personal identication. In the case
for possible human remains, that each scene should be re-visited of the 2009 Victorian Bushres Disaster, anthropologists worked
and no sites should be cleared or interfered with until police and closely with pathologists and odontologists analyzing differential-
specialists were certain all remains had been recovered. A total of ly burnt and fragmentary remains and frequently re-visiting their
86 re-visits were made, all of which included an anthropologist as initial estimates of sex and age when new information came to
part of the multidisciplinary investigation team. These re-visits light. Over the duration of the DVI process forensic anthropologists
continued until early March, more than a month after the res examined 175 cases. Each case consisted of a body bag with a
started, and a total of 56 additional DVI numbers were generated as unique DVI number, which may have contained anything from a
a result. fragment of non-human bone to commingled human remains. In
32 S. Blau, C.A. Briggs / Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935

watches, mobile phones, prostheses as well as skeletal elements

including articular surfaces The forensic anthropologist worked
closely with the consultant radiologist in interpreting images,
commenting on, for example, numbers of individuals, and the
presence/absence of metallic artifacts, teeth, etc. [32].
It is well established that [b]urning can make many objects
look like bone that are not even biological in nature [33]. In some
cases the anthropologist had to differentiate non-osseous from
osseous material. Building materials such as oor tiles were burnt
to the extent that they resembled cranial elements and glues
mimicked the morphology of dentition (Fig. 3).
Because of the inability of forensic anthropologists to attend all
scenes, photographs taken by police at the scene/s of skeletal
remains suspected to be human were sent via a secure website to
the VIFM. This allowed the anthropologists to quickly determine
whether the remains were human or non-human. This innovation
proved to be an extremely efcient way of spreading a thin
resource over a wide area.
In some cases the determination of the minimum numbers of
individuals was straight forward, for example, where the torso of
an 8-month-old child was commingled with fragments of an adult.
In the majority of cases, however, where there was signicant
fragmentation of heavily burnt remains, the experience of the
anthropologists in distinguishing differentially preserved remains
to identify bony landmarks for individualization was essential. For
example, in one case the shape and size of the articular surfaces of
the tibial plateau was the only means of determining two left tibia
and hence two individuals.

Fig. 2. Differential preservation: (a) relatively intact skeletal elements and (b)
heavily fragmentary skeletal remains.
5.5. Biological proles

addition, the forensic anthropologists had to re-examine the Standard anthropological techniques for determining a biologi-
remains on several occasions especially in relation to those with cal prole are well established [34,35]. However, in the case
multiple deceased. The scenario was further complicated (and the of mass fatalities involving a large number of differentially
overall DVI process considerably lengthened) by the fact that 31 preserved, often heavily disrupted human remains, some techni-
cases were commingled on presentation to the mortuary and eight ques will be more useful than others. A major contribution from
sets of remains were found to be non-human. the anthropologist to the DVI process is the skill of being able
As part of the normal VIFM protocol, all cases admitted to the to locate and identify in a timely manner the most relevant
mortuary were CT-scanned using a Toshiba AquilionTM 16 multi- anatomical landmarks that may provide information about
detector CT scanner. The utility of a CT scanner in a DVI situation ancestry, sex, age and/or stature (Table 1). While such information
has been highlighted in a domestic DVI context [4] but this was the will obviously not positively identify the individual, it facilitates
rst time it had been used in a disaster of this magnitude. The a triaging process for other practitioners such as the pathologist
consultant radiologist viewed all cases prior to identication and odontologists to then make their contributions.
commencing in the mortuary and prepared a brief report which In the Victorian bushres cases, ancestry and stature were not
seen as important criteria for narrowing the window of possible
indicated the presence of metallic objects such as jewellery,

Fig. 3. Building materials that mimicked burnt (a) human cranium and (b) dentition.
S. Blau, C.A. Briggs / Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935 33

Table 1
Some of the more useful anatomical features for the estimation of ancestry, sex, age and stature in fragmentary human skeletal remains.

Skeletal element Anatomical features Ancestry Sex Age Stature

Cranium Nasion morphology Yes

Glabella Yes
Occipital nuchal crest Yes
Mastoid process Yes
Supra orbital margin Yes
Zygomatic (suprameatal crest) Yes
Sphenooccipital synchondrosis Yes
Maxilla Nasal aperture (sill) Yes
Shovel-shaped incisors Yes
Maxillary dentition Yes
Mandible Ramus (gonion angle) Yes
Mental eminence Yes
Mandibular dentition Yes
Vertebra Presence of osteophytes Yes
Presence of ventral rings Yes
Pelvis Pubis (pubic symphysis, subpubic angle; size) Yes Yes
Ischio-pubic ramus Yes
Greater sciatic notch Yes
Pre-auricular surface Yes
Sacrum Sacrum Yes Yes
Femur Proximal femur Yes Yes Yes
Distal femur Yes Yes
Tibia Proximal tibia Yes Yes
Distal tibia Yes Yes
Humerus Proximal humerus Yes Yes Yes
Distal humerus Yes Yes
Radius Proximal radius Yes Yes
Clavicle Medial clavicle Yes
Ribs Sternal end Yes

identication with the focus being on sex and age. Although unfused proximal femoral epiphysis. The femoral head was able to
ancestry has been estimated in disaster contexts (e.g., [5]), the be measured suggesting female, although sex determination is
analysis is often controversial [36]. Given the remains were notoriously unreliable in juveniles.
relatively poorly preserved and we were working in the context of Additional commingled remains recovered from this site
a multi-cultural country, ancestry data was not seen as a useful included two fused upper lumbar vertebrae with loss of the
variable for narrowing the range of possibilities for identication. intervening disc space. The vertebrae showed no evidence of
While it is possible to estimate the stature of an individual from surgical xation and on rst examination it was thought
fragmentary human skeletal remains [37,38], height in living osteophytic bony bars may have lead to the fusion. One of the
people is rarely or accurately recorded in Australia. Consequently, missing persons was thought to be an elderly male, a neighbor
although stature has been seen as an important marker of personal who had retreated to the property when his own home was
identication [39], such estimates were not deemed useful in the threatened. Medical records were sought but were unable to
investigation of identication of victims of the Victorian bushres. shed any light on a possible surgical fusion. However the son of
Although the condition of the remains in the Victorian bushre the deceased remembered that his father had injured his back
cases varied from carbonized to calcined it was generally feasible many years earlier and may have had surgery to address the
to estimate sex and to provide a guide as to age. Age estimation was damage.
always easier with juvenile or childrens remains. A signicant One unexpected nd occurred during a scene re-visit to a
complicating factor, however, was commingling at properties property which had been destroyed by the re. In removing
where there were multiple deaths. At one scene the remains of sheets of galvanized iron, army personnel had come across
nine individuals, four adults and ve children, were recovered from skeletal material in a corner of a room, close to where a window
a destroyed house. From the original scene visits there was ledge had previously been located. The anthropologist con-
estimated to be as much as 90% of some individuals remaining, rmed the remains were human and part of a skull. Careful
between 25 and 50% of others and in some cases less than 25% of excavation of the surrounding area revealed additional frag-
the individuals survived. There was considerable commingling ments of skull bones, with partial mandible containing some
between the nine individuals with the possibility of non-human teeth. The entire room was subsequently searched for additional
remains as well (dogs were known to have been in the house). skeletal elements, in particular post-cranial remains; building
From the information provided, one of the deceased was thought to materials were sifted and the search extended to the outside of
be a young child. However four other older juveniles were also the window in the unlikely event of disturbance when re
suspected of having died in the property. Although the remains brigade personnel attended the scene. However, no evidence of
were signicantly commingled it was possible to distinguish additional bones could be found and the search was called off
several child lumbar vertebrae on evidence of markings (in the after several hours.
form of radiating lines) of the annular epiphyses. Several of these Information relating to the incomplete nature of the scene was
vertebrae were considerably smaller than the others and were conveyed to the DVI Commander who subsequently contacted
attributed to the 5-year-old (there was no supporting DNA members of the family. It transpired the owner had been looking
evidence). after a skull belonging to a local doctor and had left it on the
In one case a bra under wire was found (and identied as such window ledge in his study! The skull had presumably become
on the CT images), indicating a female and there was evidence of an dislodged when the house burnt down and was buried under the
34 S. Blau, C.A. Briggs / Forensic Science International 205 (2011) 2935

rubble. Interestingly none of the skeletal elements, ramus of the While it has been argued that forensic anthropology in DVI
mandible or temporal bones, had evidence of screws or hooks that situations has been under-utilized [20], over the past 20 years the
might have held the calvarium in place, common clues that such medico-legal community has increasingly embraced forensic
nds were part of a teaching collection. anthropology [42]. Depending on the type of disaster and the
level of preservation of the deceased person/s, the specic role of
5.6. Pathology review the forensic anthropologist in the DVI process will change. The
2009 Victorian bushres have highlighted the need to always
Anthropological input to identication continued long after all consider including a forensic anthropologist as part of the
remains had been examined in the mortuary. Pathology reviews multidisciplinary team managing a DVI. It was shown that the
took place as briefs were assembled by the police for presentation anthropologist can play a crucial role in narrowing the initial
to the Identication Board chaired by the Coroner. In cases were search and provide key information directing the pathologist (who
commingling had occurred scene photographs were scrutinized as may have limited experience of differentially burnt skeletal
were details on the DVI pink forms in an attempt to conrm the elements) to the right conclusions with regards to the sex and
position of each individual. Where doubts were raised the age of the deceased. In addition, the anthropologists knowledge
anthropologist routinely returned to the mortuary to re-examine and experience in separating human from non-human remains as
the contents of body bags. well as left and right elements greatly assisted in the determina-
tion of the minimum number of individuals at a scene and
5.7. Logistical issues signicantly reduced the overall time taken to nalize identica-
There were a number of occupational health and safety issues
that had to be dealt with prior to working at a scene. In addition to Acknowledgements
assessing the integrity of walls in destroyed houses and having to
work on oor surfaces that were still extremely hot, some of the The authors are grateful for comments provided by Luis
scenes were contaminated by asbestos. None of the anthropolo- Fondebrider (EAAF) and two anonymous reviewers.
gists had previous experience working in such conditions but were
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