After Storm Alex, body identification remains tricky

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After Storm Alex, body identification remains tricky




Part of the old cemetery of Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, here on October 8, collapsed in the torrent that flows into the Roya, causing graves.


© Laurent CARRE
Part of the old cemetery of Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, here on October 8, collapsed in the torrent that flows into the Roya, causing graves.

Investigators from the Gendarmerie Unit for the Identification of Disaster Victims are on site, in particular to distinguish whether the bodies found are victims of the storm or come from devastated cemeteries.

In Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende, the tomb of Ernest de Lommeau is on the edge of the precipice. The stele and the medallion – which still contains the photo of the deceased in black and white – withstood the force of the water. Only the stone, closed in October 1971, cracked. From this break, the rest of the cemetery slipped into the river. The force of the water carried away the vaults, disemboweled the graves.

“400 graves moved in the valleys”

“It is hardly imaginable that two cemeteries [à Saint-Dalmas-de-Tende et Saint-Martin-Vésubie] were going to be totally devastated, exposes the public prosecutor of Nice, Xavier Bonhomme, in a press conference Wednesday. 400 graves have been moved to the valleys. ” In Roya and Vésubie, twelve days after storm Alex, this situation complicates the work of investigators. They must distinguish whether the bodies found are from the storm or from cemeteries.

In the Alpes-Maritimes, five bodies were identified and returned to families. “For two others, we have a doubt, said the prosecutor. We do not know whether the deaths resulted from inclement weather or from cemeteries. We are in the presence of an extraordinary event. ” To put things in perspective, sixteen investigators from the Gendarmerie Unit for the Identification of Disaster Victims (UGIVC) were dispatched to the scene. Just before, they were in Lebanon.

“There are things we will never find”

Since 1992 and the Mont Saint-Odile disaster, these forensic scientists and anthropologists have been identifying victims of plane crashes, attacks or natural disasters. “We have experience, hindsight. But we have never been confronted with having to make a technical choice between a perimortem body and a cemetery body, recognizes Nicolas Thiburce, head of the human identification forensics department. Time is not on our side: there is a race against time. We may still have 48 hours, at most, to be able to make the distinction. ”

The more time passes, the more the elements wither away. The bodies are transported from the mountains to the sea: salt water degrades DNA, river water erodes the skin and makes fingerprints disappear. After that, there is only the study of the teeth, it is still necessary to have the medical file. This is where families come in. For ten days, the investigators of this specialized cell have been collecting these primary clues and, in the event that “The robust scientific elements have disappeared”, secondary specificities: tattoos, hair color, jewelry. Sometimes there is nothing left on the body, neither the physical characteristics of the deceased, nor the identification bracelets on the wrist of the deceased in the cemeteries. “You have to understand that there are things that you will never find again. It must be integrated, it is a reality, explains the investigator. You have body parts under several meters of earth. The earth will not return them. Bodies can go as far as the sea. The sea may never give them back. “ Thirteen people are still missing in the Alpes-Maritimes and seven bodies were found on the Italian side, without certainty about their identity. It is because the search area is enormous. Storm Alex affected three valleys over a 1,000 km² basin where 8,000 people live.

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