Faced with the grim but essential task of identifying victims of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, Quebec’s chief coroner foresees a “long, delicate process” of shipping remains in refrigerated trucks to labs in Montreal.
Louise Nolet said on Radio-Canada that she’s expecting to match fragments of remains and use DNA testing extensively because many of the bodies may have been burned beyond recognition.
In some homes that were consumed by fire, she said, an additional challenge will be distinguishing the remains of humans and those of household pets.
“This is the beginning of a long, delicate process that requires expertise,” Dr. Nolet said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
That point was reinforced at a news conference on Monday, when the coroner’s spokeswoman, Geneviève Guilbault, implored relatives of suspected victims to provide their loved ones’ toothbrushes, combs and razors to be used to match DNA.
Ms. Guilbault said three dental technicians and a forensic anthropologist, who specializes in identifying remains in advanced stages of decomposition, would be assisting the coroner’s office.
An estimated 50 people went missing in the fire that consumed a wide swath of the downtown core, including a popular bar, the Musi-Café, where it is believed many of those who vanished were early Saturday morning when the blaze began.
The building was at the centre of the derailment and was incinerated, raising the spectre that some victims may not be identified if they were cremated in the inferno.
Provincial police Sergeant Benoît Richard said Monday that 13 bodies had been recovered from the ruins thus far, although he was unclear how many of them have been identified.
The process of identification could take weeks, months or even years.
“It’s going to take some time, especially with remains that have been badly burned,” said Mark Desire, who oversees a team of four scientists in New York City that continues to identify remains of people killed in the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
Last week, the team identified a firefighter, making him the 1,637th person identified among the more than 2,600 people who died that day.
Over the dozen years, the team has fine-tuned its identification process, including using liquid nitrogen to grind bone to a fine powder to expose more cells that can be extracted for testing.
“You do whatever it takes,” Mr. Desire said. “The goal is to identify these folks and return them to their loved ones.”
The fire at Lac-Mégantic razed 30 buildings and some witnesses described feeling its heat kilometres away.
Thambirajah Balachandra, the chief medical examiner of Manitoba, said the key to investigations like that under way in Quebec is meticulousness.
“Don’t assume everything is burned. You always have to think that there will be something, some evidence,” Dr. Balachandra said.
He later added: “It’s very painstaking.”
With reports from Sean Silcoff and Tu Thanh Ha