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First Base 

February 15, 2005 | On Boxing Day, as the Brits call it, I was fortunate enough to be body surfing in the tepid waters of the Tasman Sea, while admiring the local surfers skating effortlessly across the menacing waves rushing toward one of Sydney, Australia's beaches.

But for hundreds of thousands of people that morning, the waves never stopped coming. The cataclysmic collision of two tectonic plates under the Indian Ocean produced the largest earthquake in four decades — 9.0 on the Richter scale — and thrust the Borneo plate upward an estimated 30 to 50 feet, across hundreds of miles of the Sunda trench. The resulting teletsunami, a displacement of billions of tons of water, raced toward land at jetliner speed. In shallower waters, the sea suddenly rose to claim more than 225,000 lives — 75 times the toll of the World Trade Center disaster.

As relief finally reaches the most remote and worst affected regions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, the gruesome task of retrieving and identifying the bodies enters a critical new phase. For most of the local Hindu and Muslim victims, mass cremation or burial has been a priority for both religious and health reasons. But for relatives of thousands of tourists who had been vacationing along Thailand's formerly pristine coastline, the bodies must be recovered and identified, prior to repatriation. Interpol procedures require that identity be confirmed in at least two methods, using fingerprints, dental records, or DNA.

As in the September 11 tragedy, dozens of countries share in the loss, with Sweden, Germany, and the United Kingdom particularly affected. Forensic teams from at least 20 nations are collaborating in the identification effort. While Australian forensic experts are playing a leading role in the identification effort, the final data collation will likely take place in China. The task facing investigators is immense. For comparison, it took investigators five months to identify the burned remains of 300 victims from the Bali terrorist bombing in 2002.

BODY ID: Disaster victim identification experts examine records in Phuket, Thailand.
In the tropical heat, with scant refrigeration, thousands of bodies were quickly rendered unrecognizable. At the Thailand Tsunami Victim Identification (TTVI) center in Phuket, Thailand, relatives have flocked to view photographs before giving DNA samples — a cheek swab, a hair root. In cases where identification has been possible, a tiny computer chip is embedded in the cadaver, containing DNA information.

At the TTVI center, officials have been evaluating genetic database systems for comparing ante-mortem and post-mortem DNA samples, including the M-FISys program, built by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gene Codes, that became the benchmark for post-September 11 identification efforts (see "Soul Searching," Sept. 2003 Bio·IT World, page 46). Last month, the first provisional identifications were being made.

The tragic irony of the tsunami disaster is that the presence of a warning system similar to that deployed in the Pacific Ocean would have saved countless lives. Officials at the Pacific tsunami warning center said they lacked contact numbers for their Asian counterparts. Vasily Titov, a researcher at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, was vainly running a computer simulation following the initial earthquake reports, even as the tsunami radiated across the Indian Ocean.

It is easy to fault India and its neighbors for not taking the threat more seriously, but even experts in the region did not foresee a disaster on this scale. Better late than never, a United Nations-sponsored international conference was held in Kobe, Japan, last month to discuss ways to set up a warning system in the Indian Ocean, which India has pledged to build. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has already issued plans to extend the Pacific tsunami warning system to the Atlantic and the Caribbean basin in the coming years.

The tsunami has brought about an unprecedented international relief effort, with governments, individuals, philanthropies, and corporations offering billions of dollars in support. However, this welcome outpouring should not blind us from many other desperate, if less compelling, causes worldwide. As Bristol-Myers Squibb's CEO, Peter Dolan, pointed out recently, the death toll from AIDS is about 9,000 people every day — the equivalent of "a tsunami coming at us about every three weeks."* 


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