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A firefighter at the scene of a deadly blaze at the Osindiso building in Johannesburg on August 31 2023. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
A firefighter at the scene of a deadly blaze at the Osindiso building in Johannesburg on August 31 2023. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

Initially the department of health reported 10 bodies of the 76 people who died last Thursday were burnt beyond recognition. This number‚ however‚ increased to 62 by Friday morning after the bodies were examined by forensic pathologists.

TimesLIVE spoke to SA Academy of Forensic Sciences chair Stefan Jansen van Vuuren about how the DNA identification process works.

Jansen van Vuuren‚ who works as a forensic pathologist in the Free State‚ said it is hard to estimate how long results for the 62 bodies will take as this could be affected by factors including resources.

“Generally it should take days to get DNA results but from a practical point of view‚ it does take longer.

“We [forensics pathologists] wait a long time for DNA results‚ depending on the laboratory and where the samples come from. In my experience it can take anything from two to nine years‚” he said.

The forensic pathologist said this might not be the case in the mass casualty disaster should a forensics disaster unit be set up in Gauteng to fast-track results. He said in some cases where pressure was applied the results came out within weeks.

“Each province has its own forensic pathology services. According to their mass disaster plan they would have to allocate resources to sort out the death investigations (postmortems) and identification process.”

Police laboratories that process DNA samples sometimes experience backlog problems.

Jansen van Vuuren said usually in disaster plans the forensic facilities pool together resources to speed up postmortems reports. The report takes about four to five days and after that a body is released‚ but it could be longer when there are mass casualties.

“The death investigation is much more difficult in a case where you have charred bodies. The greater the degree of charring the more difficult it is going to make the case.”

Becomes difficult

He said the identification of charred remains is also difficult for the DNA processes.

“Sometimes when a body is disfigured by an injury or decomposition or burning‚ in those kinds of conditions that is when we employ scientific methods of identification. One is the fingerprinting method‚ but if they are not on the SA database the fingerprinting method becomes difficult and sometimes impossible.”

Gauteng health department spokesperson Motalatale Modiba confirmed to TimesLIVE that families who reported missing relatives after the fire were from SA‚ Malawi‚ Tanzania‚ Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

Jansen van Vuuren said when visual identification is impossible‚ the deceased is not on a local DNA database and no relative is available to assist with DNA processes‚ identification cannot be made.

The deceased gets a pauper’s burial if the body could not be identified and no relative claimed it. Jansen van Vuuren said this usually happened after three months‚ depending on municipal regulations.

“If there is a victim identification unit it would collect all the identification profile data including photographs of the face‚ clothing if that is available‚ tattoos and jewellery‚ things like that. They would collect fingerprints if those were available and data from DNA. They would take all that data and set up a profile of the victim. They keep these until family members come to identify their loved ones.”

Jansen van Vuuren said it would not be easy to identify the 62 bodies but unity and good communication among the different teams could speed up the process.

University of Cape Town (UCT) associate forensic medicine and toxicology professor Laura Heathfield told TimesLIVE extracting DNA from 62 samples‚ including cleaning the samples‚ will be time consuming.

DNA extraction

“These are some of the most challenging cases to get DNA from and usually the samples that are available are in the form of hard tissue‚ like bones and teeth. It is tricky.

“The DNA extraction from samples is the longest in this process.”

Heathfield estimated it would take five days in the UCT laboratory. This was not the final process.

“We have to clean the samples first and be careful to make sure there is no cross-contamination between the samples from people. Thereafter‚ once we have pure DNA we would determine how much DNA we were able to recover. At this stage we are able to determine if the DNA belongs to a male or female. Then we can do DNA profiling.”

If the deceased’s identity exists in a local DNA database it speeds up the process‚ she said.

“It is important for blood relatives to come forward and provide these reference samples. If there are personal items of the deceased like a toothbrush or hairbrush that would be good for DNA reference but unfortunately these would be burnt in a fire. The family members can also provide DNA samples of their own to match the DNA.

“This sample would be in the form of a buccal swab‚ taken inside a cheek. It does not hurt. We can use that to identify [bodies].”

“Sometimes we need to process the DNA sample again and adjust some conditions to get the maximum amount of information from that sample. During the postmortem it is always a good idea to take a few samples for DNA testing and not only one because that one sample might not be able to yield the best results.”

African Forensic Sciences Academy’s Antonel Olckers said mass disasters in which foreign nationals are involved are not easy to solve.

“It is a complex management task that involves various consulates‚ as well as aligning support efforts for loved ones of the deceased by‚ for example‚ obtaining DNA samples from families in other countries to assist in identifying the bodies of their loved ones.

“It is understandable that families seek answers about the cause of the disaster‚ and how they can be reunited with the bodies of their loved ones. This takes time, and aspects such as treating the bodies of the dead with respect and dignity are key‚” Olckers said.

“Many of the questions asked at this time can be answered by forensic science work if the scene of the disaster is handled appropriately‚ and evidence is collected in a manner that protects its integrity‚” she said.


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