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Victim identification process

Police and other specialists are working around the clock to identify the bodies of people killed in the Christchurch earthquake.

“We know it’s an agonising wait for families desperate to find out about their loved-ones, but there is a legal requirement for this work to be completed to standards set by the Coroner,” says Mike Wright, New Zealand Police Disaster Victim Identification Commander.

In this particular situation, Police are required to follow the international process of disaster victim identification. This does not rely solely on visual identification as it has been found that in such stressful conditions distraught relatives can often mistakenly identify loved ones.

There are at least 106 staff working on the disaster victim identification process which includes identifying people through fingerprints, DNA, dental records and personal information. “They are working as quickly as they can while ensuring they are being methodical and thorough.”

There are five stages in the disaster victim identification process, work on all stages will be carried out concurrently.

The five stages of disaster victim identification

Postmortem phases:
collecting detail from the recovered body

Stage 1: Scene

  • Police Disaster Victim Identification are supporting Urban Search and Rescue efforts at the various scenes.
  • Any human remains are examined and documented in situ, then taken to a temporary holding area.

Stage 2: Mortuary

  • Body (or human remains) is examined in detail by a pathologist, forensic dentist, fingerprint officer and Police Disaster Victim Identification team
  • Coroner is advised and may choose to attend
  • Personal effects (such as jewelry, clothing) are photographed in situ, then collected, examined, cleaned, re-photographed and secured.

Antemortem phase:
information about missing person is brought in from outside

Stage 3: Antemortem Information Retrieval

  • Police gather information about possible victims, such as
    • descriptions of appearance, clothing, jewelry, photos
    • medical and dental records, x-rays
    • fingerprints, from objects or official records (commonly collected by some overseas agencies)
    • DNA samples, such as from a hairbrush, toothbrush or blood sample.

Stage 4: Reconcilliation

  • Information from postmortem and antemortem phases are brought together to find a match
  • Easiest identifications are done first to reduce the possible number of matches
  • Identification Board (chaired by the Coroner) is presented evidence of the match by fingerprint, dentistry, DNA and Police DVI experts and decides if identification has been established
  • Family and/or Foreign Mission is advised, then media.

Stage 5: Debrief

People involved in the DVI process keep each other updated throughout all stages

Support and welfare is made available to staff including stress and grief counsellors, chaplains, Victim Support and police welfare officers.

Common questions and answers relating to disaster victim identification

When can a body be identified relatively quickly?

  • The death was witnessed by someone who knew the victim
  • The victim lived locally so samples and records can be easily accessed.

When does it take a relatively long time to identify a body?

  • Descriptions have changed, such as the victim changed clothing
  • The victim was seriously injured
  • The victim is a visitor or tourist - they can't be identified until reported missing
  • Results from samples and/or records have to be arranged from overseas.

Why isn't it enough for a friend or relative to identify a body?

  • International experience shows visual identification is not conclusive. Those trying to make an identification are highly stressed and mistakes occur.
  • Severe injuries can make visual identification difficult.

How long does the disaster victim identification process take?

  • It depends on factors including number of people available to work on it. DNA samples usually take several days to process.
  • Police are retrieving information (Phase 3) from people reported missing while searches continue.

How are families kept informed?

  • A Police family liaison officer is assigned to families of people reported missing. They provide a consistent point of contact, inform families about the process and update them with progress.