The Ferry Tragedy: Lack Of Body Bags And The Dearth Of Forensic Expertise

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The advice of UP pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun that “there must be a detailed external examination of all remains recovered while the soft tissues are still intact for documentation and proper identification” seems to be what we know from a pathology textbook. But for those who are aware of how forensic science is practiced in the Philippines, this recommendation is a pipe dream, especially for those who lost loved ones in the Princess of the Stars tragedy.

In spite of advanced forensic technology currently in use today, our investigators are mostly operating on antiquated scientific grounds, very much like the outdated travel guidelines Sulpicio Lines followed which led to the ill-fated ship to its seabed grave. Our forensic doctors may well be 50 years behind in what modern science normally does to deal with deaths of this magnitude.

We don’t have enough freezers and body bags to keep our cadavers. There is no central repository of bodies that’s needed to secure material evidence and specimens for testing. We lack the manpower and logistics to deal with such a catastrophe which upsets all of us. With no time to put up a coordinated team, pressure to bury decomposing bodies builds up. The public is afraid of potential contamination and outbreak of diseases.

Since I left UP-PGH in the 1980’s, little had changed in our way of medico-legal investigation. In those days, as member of the Department of Pathology, I volunteered to help examine remains—a thankless job I did for free, because few pathologists in the academe were willing to do it. I believed it was a calling which I must sustain for those who sought justice. I joined the National Bureau Investigation (NBI,) Commission on Human Rights (CHR,) and some cause-oriented groups perform autopsies and identifications, mostly for victims of violence and killings during Marcos’s time.

The reasons for the dearth of interest in forensic science are largely predictable. For years, the systemic lack of budget has spawned a culture of waiting, inaction, and helplessness on the part of the government. Gruesome and messy as necropsies may be, forensic science is a tedious job. Few doctors go into the specialty for lack of appreciation of its contribution to our society. It appears a sizeable number of medico-legal doctors stick to their jobs as their source of livelihood, not because they gain professional satisfaction in caring for the dead and in seeking the truth behind a person’s passing.

Many medico-legal doctors in the Philippines are trained on the routine crime scene investigation, identification of bodies and autopsy, but they sorely lack support. As basic as a steady supply of gloves, sharp scalpels, or a good morgue assistant, pathologists don’t have standard modern autopsy facilities. Besides, they have only a few credible laboratories with state-of-the-art capabilities which can help put their cases to rest.

The routine death investigations do not usually pose problems. It is the sensational demise, those that hug the news and cause public controversy and pain that bring embarrassment to our medico-legal capabilities. In our ranks, we have forensic workers who are slowed by the endemic problems of the profession: job-overload, lack of facilities, inadequate budgetary support, turf wars, and a dearth in trained manpower.

There are times when we don’t believe what our medico-legal investigators say. Questionable results of past cases make them appear untrustworthy. The question of competence and honesty often crop up, making them cynical and defensive. Burdened by their deficiencies, they end up as apologists and defenders of an institution that needs total overhaul.

Body retrieval and identification disturb us. In mass deaths, our instinct is to ask help from forensic experts abroad, believing that it’s the only way a reliable medico-legal investigation can be carried out. Our unending dependence on foreign assistance makes us lose our drive to learn, work hard, and trust in ourselves.

Who then will do the examination, documentation, procurement of tissue samples that may aid in identifying the dead? Who will provide the freezers that Dr. Fortun asks for (Inguirer, 06/27/08, Uy, J.)—so that the NBI and medico-legal experts like her could do their job to the satisfaction of the grieving public? When will we get the central repository of remains and tissue samples of unidentified victims?

The main purpose of postmortem examination in the tragedy is to recognize the dead as quickly as possible so that their relatives can give them decent burial. Body retrieval and identification will help bring closure to the grief of loved ones. Necropsy is important in the prosecution of case(s) against the culpable. It’s vital in pursuing justice for the victims.

At this time, it is less important to know the victim’s circumstance and manner of dying, for without the ship’s sinking, all the passengers could be presumed alive to reach their destination. Most of those who perished probably drowned.

More than 20 years after I left UP-PGH, I doubt if precise identification could be done on many victims of Sulpicio Lines. An overwhelming number of decomposing bodies, in various stages of decay, at different sites in the islands, some drifting from the shipwreck have been found floating or washed to shore. It appears the manpower and forensic expertise to do a credible job on these bodies, are meager and inadequate. =0=

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