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About the identifying of the victims

Here we tell the story about how the victims of the Tenerife crash were identified.

The crash at Tenerife takes place on Sunday 27th March at 5 pm. A couple of hours later an almost empty Boeing 747 departs from Amsterdam Schiphol to pick up the travelers who were run ashore at Las Palmas. Among those onboard are members of the RIT (the Dutch Emergency Identification Staff).

On Monday morning at 4 o’ clock the plane touches down at the airport of Las Palmas. The team then travels on to Los Rodeos by helicopter. When they arrive at Tenerife they smell burning flesh which they describe as being ‘terrible’. The Spanish Military are busy with recovering the bodies of the dead, and also trying to separate the Dutch people from the American.

It’s a very tragic sight; more than 550 dead bodies in one hangar. There is no description for it, it’s terrible. The Dutch people ask themselves: ‘What do we do?’, ‘What can we do?’.

They ask permission to identify their victims; they receive this at 6.30 in the morning. All the members of the staff are horrified by what they see - most of the bodies are on makeshift beds . On some beds still appears the infusion apparatus. It did not help, it could not help.

The American authorities arrive too late, and are refused permission to try to identify their victims. The Spanish authorities decree that the American equipment is inadequate, so they have to help the Spanish with embalming the bodies of the American victims. Identification of the bodies cannot be done until they return to America, so a lot of vital information will be lost.

The identification of dead people has two phases. The first is the ‘post mortem’ and the second is the ‘ante mortem’. In the post mortem phase, researchers study the whole body of the person, and they look at objects found in the vicinity of the victim. All this information will be included in the ‘post mortem dossier’. They don’t draw conclusions at this time. The post mortem is carried out at the site of the accident, where as the ante mortem is done in the victim’s home country.

After their breakfast on Monday morning, the Dutch people start their work, but where do they start when they are faced with so many dead people, many of them badly burned? The Dutch team work in four groups, each having two members: a Researcher and a Policeman.

Producing a post mortem dossier of 248 people is a very large and difficult task, and on top of this, they now don’t have many hours remaining in which to finish their work. This is because Spanish law dictates that all bodies of victims must be placed in coffins within 48 hours from the time of the crash. This means the teams must finish their work by Tuesday evening.

In identifying victims, the set of teeth provides the most important information.

Gradually, the Dutch teams realise they won’t be able to finish their work within the time limit imposed by Spanish Law, and they know all too well that the Spanish are unlikely to be flexible in this regard. By Monday night they are very tired, and they catch some sleep, but it’s not for long. After just four hours they have to wake up and continue. The Dutch sleep in a hotel near the airport, while some Spanish military personnel sleep among the dead bodies.

On Tuesday evening the time limit expires, and there are still 60 bodies to do. Because there’s not enough material to embalm the bodies, the Dutch teams get more time to write up a post mortem dossier for each victim. While dinner is being served, four dentists arrive from the Netherlands to help. The other researchers are very tired, having worked for 40 hours with just 4 hours rest. However, they know how important their work is, and how relieved the families of the victims will be to hear that their victim has been identified.

Nine hours after the limit expired, they have finished their work. For all 248 Dutch victims there is a post mortem dossier.

Once the bodies are embalmed, they go firstly by truck to the harbor, then by boat to Las Palmas, and finally by plane to Amsterdam on DC-8 and DC-9 aircraft. When the planes arrive at Schiphol on Friday morning, they immediately taxi to hangar 9.

Researchers in the Netherlands have already started to make an ‘ante mortem dossier’. In most cases, the ante mortem starts at the same time as the post mortem. In the ante mortem phase, the researcher will collect all kind of information about the victims. When both dossiers are completed, they compare the post mortem dossier with the ante mortem, and from this they hope to get an answer to the question: ‘Who was this person?’

At this stage they are also restricted by a time limit. They may carry out research on a dead body for up to a week after the embalming, so they have to finish the work by Tuesday evening.

This work is also very difficult, ‘Especially when you have a child or baby on your research table.’ (Researcher)

The researchers take a lot of X-ray photographs, especially of the teeth. After that, they compare these photos with the photos taken by the passenger’s dentist during one of their visits before the accident. It’s one of the most reliable ways to get information about the identify of a person from a body.

By Saturday morning, almost 100 people are working on identifying the victims, and by Tuesday evening they have the identities of 137 people. The researchers ask the families whether they want to look at the property of the victims, and also at the postmortem dossier, to see if they recognise anything. By this method, they confirm the identity of 36 more victims.

In the following weeks, they work to identify the remaining 75 victims. In total, they manage to identify 204 victims, 82 percent of the death toll, which is extremely high.

There were 335 American victims. As mentioned earlier, the Americans didn’t receive permission to identify their dead bodies at Los Rodeos, so a lot of vital information was lost. Aside from this, there was another difficulty. A lot of the passengers from the Pan-Am plane we’re around 70 years old. A lot of them were wearing dentures instead of their original set of teeth, and at Los Rodeos the dentures were separated from the bodies. The U.S. Air Force responded to a request from Pan-Am officials for help, and finally they managed to identify 218 victims, 65 percent of the total toll.

All the researchers did an almost impossible job at Tenerife, but they can take pride in their work, and in the fact that the families felt some closure when their victims had been identified. Let us never forget this part of the Tenerife story, and what the researchers did, not for themselves, but for others.

They deserve great honor.

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