Gruelling job of identifying Lac-Megantic victims is not like some slick TV show, experts say

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Gruelling job of identifying Lac-Megantic victims is not like some slick TV show, experts say

As more of the site of the Lac-Megantic rail disaster is revealed to the public, Canadians are getting a glimpse of the hellish conditions workers face in the gruelling task of recovering remains and gathering evidence.

It's nothing like TV's CSI:Crime Scene Investigation, one expert told The Canadian Press.

"Those poor guys are on their hands and knees, wading through soot," said Dr. Bill Inkster, an identification specialist with the B.C. Coroners Service.

"They look like 17th century coal miners by now, I'm sure, and brushing ashes [away]with paint brushes," he said told CP from the coroners service headquarters in Burnaby, B.C. "It's just plain hard work — meticulous, slow."

Two more bodies were recovered Monday from the flame-blasted ruins of Lac-Megantic's downtown, where a runaway train of oil tank cars derailed and exploded in the early morning hours of July 6. It brought the number of confirmed dead to 37, with 13 others still missing, their remains likely still in the rubble.

[ Related: Police lift curtain on Lac-Megantic devastation; media allowed to record images in perimeter ]

About 50 police officers are at work amid the vast debris field, Michel Forget of the Sûreté du Québec told Postmedia News. They work in the so-called Red Zone from dawn to dusk amid dangerous wreckage in temperatures sometimes over 50 degrees.

Two officers have been injured so far, one suffering heat stroke and another chemical burns to an eye, Postmedia News reported.

A 12-member crew hired by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway is also draining the remaining oil from dozens of overturned rail tankers left at the crash scene, as well as removing contaminated soil.

The search teams include specially trained police, firefighters and forensic anthropologists who've helped identify 11 victims so far from the badly burned remains, CP said. They're using everything from hand shovels and brushes to big excavators to pick through the buildings.

In some ways the effort seems to more closely resemble the one at New York's World Trade Centre in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, where possible victim remains are still being found more than a decade afterward.

[ Related: Firefighters describe 'colossal' challenge they faced in Lac-Megantic ]

"The initial search is beyond comprehension," Inkster, part of the team of specialists that worked in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, told CP. "It's going to be incredibly complex."

Tracy Rogers, who heads the University of Toronto's forensic science program, told CP this is far from a conventional crime scene.

"The approach that's going to be taken is very similar to an archeological excavation, where you go through layer by layer, sorting and screening and carefully removing each level of debris searching for the human remains that may be embedded within," said Rogers, who who was part of the team identifying the remains of murdered women at serial killer Robert Pickton's suburban Vancouver pig farm.

And while they work, investigators also have to consider their own safety, she added.

"They've got toxic areas, they've got hot spots," said Rogers. "They've got all sorts of different things they have to address that's important for the safety of the searchers. When you have something like buildings going down, you get levels and levels of debris."

Then comes the challenge of identifying the badly burned remains. The fire generated by the ruptured tankers burned brightly enough to be seen from space, the Weather Network noted. Temperatures were high enough to cremate the remains in some instances.

Investigators are using tools such as DNA, X-rays and detailed profiles of victims' habits and movements to try and confirm identities, CP said. No one is formally identified until the coroner is completely sure.