Quest to ID remains brings mystery after mudslide

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 2, 2014 at 7:06 pm •  Published: April 2, 2014
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EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — As medical examiners painstakingly piece together the identities and lives of the 29 people known killed when a mudslide wiped out a small Washington community, one mystery troubles them.

One set of remains does not fit with the description on the missing persons list, which, as of Wednesday included 18 people.

The medical examiners know it is a male. But his remains give no clue as to who he was, or who might be looking for him. They can't even identify his age range. Without possible family members to compare, DNA tests are useless. At this point, gold teeth are all they have to go on.

The mystery underscores the tedious process of identifying remains more than a week after the March 22 landslide that broke off a steep hill, roared across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and buried a community at Oso, about 55 miles north of Seattle.

Like the homes, the cars and the other parts of people's lives swept away by the torrent of mud, some bodies are in pieces.

Norman Thiersch, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner, said the goal of the team — which is made up of medical examiners, detectives, dentists and others — is to make sure there's no doubt as to the identities of the victims.

"This is not television," he said. "These are methodical, painstaking processes we go through."

Although the identities of 28 of the 29 confirmed dead have been determined, officials have so far released the names of only 25. Other names are expected to be released by the end of the week. Eighteen people are still listed as missing.

HOW ARE THE BODIES PROCESSED?

When bodies or remains are found in the mudslide area, crews dig them out and they are flown by helicopter to a nearby landing pad where they are readied to move to the medical examiner's office in Everett, about 30 miles from the scene. Once there, the bodies are moved to a tented area for decontamination, where they are cleaned in warm water. From there they are moved to the autopsy room where examiners take fingerprints, look for signs of dental work and identifying marks such as tattoos. When that work is complete, remains are moved to a refrigerated area where they stay until funeral homes make arrangements for burial or cremation.

WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG TO IDENTIFY BODIES?

The process for identifying remains, some of which are partial, is careful work, especially when trauma is involved, Thiersch said.