Forensic science students at the University of Wolverhampton are learning about effective responses to major disasters – from someone who knows all about them. Former Detective Superintendent Derek Forest OBE was the International Police Commander working alongside the Thai Police following the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University.
This Christmas saw the 7th anniversary of the Indian Ocean Earthquake, which claimed the lives of more than 280,000 people. The devastation caused by the resulting tsunami is hard to imagine, with 13 countries affected over a seven hour period and deaths recorded 5,000 miles away from the epicentre of the quake. As the horror unfolded, it became clear that recovering the victims and notifying families was going to be a huge undertaking.
During his time with West Midlands Police Derek Forest spent 16 months in Thailand following the disaster. As International Police Commander, his role involved managing the law enforcement and forensic experts from the 31 countries that responded to the incident. This focused on recovery of victims’ bodies from the beaches, towns and surrounding islands.
With experts from different countries with varying experience, equipment and protocols, one of the main challenges was how everyone would work together effectively.
“It very quickly became apparent that the only way the operation would work was in a joined up and co-ordinated operation,” Derek explains.“Protocols were drawn up that delivered one process and within that was a command structure. The challenge here was to ensure that all victims were treated equally and that no discrimination or favouritism was shown to any particular individuals or groups. The UK stepped forward to provide a commander, which was me – although I didn’t find that out until I arrived in Bangkok!
“Thousands of people were reported missing from 36 countries in the early stages. The UK had 147 victims of the tsunami, but by the end of Boxing Day we had 22,000 British people reported missing. The policy is to get the numbers down as quickly as possible, for example by tracing people who had gone to hospital or those trying to escape the devastation through local airports.”
Derek says the grim task involved recovering victims, creating temporary mortuaries, examining victims and obtaining as much descriptive detail as possible, including property and clothing. It also involved collecting DNA, fingerprints, dental information and also noting unique physical features or medical interventions such as tattoos, prosthetic implants or pacemakers.
“At the same time we sent out to the 36 countries to provide descriptive details of all the missing people - their dental records, any available fingerprint data and DNA if available or their family’s DNA. We were then able to compare this against all the information gathered from the post mortems.
“At a point when a forensic identification could be delivered with integrity, we would put that through an identification commission chaired by the Royal Thai Police, and if they were satisfied that identity had been established the information would be delivered to embassies or to the families direct if they were local.”
Although a huge, daunting and distressing task, the recovery operation was immensely important for the families of the missing people. They were able to make decisions about what happened to their loved ones, whether they were repatriated or given a local funeral. In total 7,000 bodies were recovered as part of the operation Derek was involved in – and by the time he left over a year after the disaster, 580 had still not been identified. These people were in the main believed to be local Thais whose whole family had been washed away in the incident, leaving no-one to report them missing or identify them.
Derek, who is now retired, shares his experiences of the Boxing Day Tsunami with students on the BSc (Hons) Forensic Science course. He says this provides an overview of disaster management and identification.
“One of the main challenges around a big disaster like this was the size of the scene – 240 miles of coastline were penetrated two to three miles inland – and also you cannot eliminate the community from the scene. We were also working in different conditions to what we were used to – it was between 32 and 35 degrees centigrade and 80% humidity. This provided additional challenges in terms of preserving the forensic opportunities for the subsequent identification process.
“In my lecture I explain to the students the principles of the recovery and the dignity afforded to that process. I also talk about who you are doing it for – the families.
“One of the main benefits for the students is that they are given insight into an area of forensic investigation which is probably at the extremes of what they would traditionally understand forensic work to entail. This may not have been an area they would have considered to pursue as a career or to specialise in, but it shows that they do not have to use their expertise just in law enforcement, they can also consider aid agencies and the British Red Cross.”
Dr Raul Sutton, Head of the Department of Forensic and Molecular Science, agrees. He explains Wolverhampton Forensic Science students learn all the skills that would be expected of scientists, so they can handle numerical data using statistics, explain themselves effectively in a court of law and have a methodical approach to practical work. Forensic science graduates have excellent job prospects, entering fields such as scene of crime work, quality assurance in food and pharmaceutical manufacturing, trading standards, public and industrial health and safety, and accident investigation.
The School of Applied Sciences is also launching an MSc Forensic Genetics and Human Identification, which aims to teach graduates about the techniques used in Disaster Victim Identification and Management. Derek will play a significant role in the delivery of this award.
Whatever career students enter, they will no doubt hope they do not have to face the sights and scenes Derek Forest encountered in Thailand. But if they ever do, their practical experience and academic expertise will stand them in good stead for the challenges and the important role they will play.