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Friday, 8 December, 2000, 23:45 GMT
Marchioness hands 'lost for years'
The Marchioness
The Marchioness sinking claimed 51 lives
The coroner in the Marchioness riverboat tragedy has been defending his actions after it emerged a victim's hands removed for identification were found four years later.

The practice was carried out on 25 of the 51 victims during the investigation overseen by coroner, Dr Paul Knapman.

The disaster inquiry in London heard on Friday that the severed hands of Elsa Garcia were found four years after the tragedy on the River Thames in August 1989.
Inner London coroner Dr Paul Knapman
Dr Knapman apologised to victims' families

A member of the coroner's staff cleaning a fridge found them by accident, wrapped in a bag.

Marchioness families have been hearing Dr Knapman's view on why the hands of victims were removed without their permission.

Following the hearing the relatives called for Dr Knapman, coroner of Inner West London, to resign.

Until Thursday, Spanish-born Lucy Garcia had been unaware that her daughter's hands had been cut off.

An emotional Mrs Garcia accused Dr Knapman of acting in a "horrifying way" towards her daughter, a 25-year-old London University language graduate.

It was like something "out of the dark ages", she said.

Mrs Garcia told the hearing: "He deprived me the right to my daughter, to hold her hand for the last time, to give her a farewell kiss."

As the inquiry heard details of Mrs Garcia's case, Dr Knapman was angrily heckled by a relative from the public gallery, who then broke down and had to be led from the court.

All decisions were taken with the best of intentions and I deeply regret that some aspects of the aftermath have caused upset.

Dr Knapman

After giving nearly two and a half hours of evidence, the coroner apologised for any distress his actions may have caused bereaved relatives.

Lord Justice Clarke, the judge leading the inquiry, has already expressed concern at the decision to sever hands from so many of the victims.

Identification process

The practice was used for those found in the river outside the Marchioness, which sank after colliding with the dredger Bowbelle, to record fingerprints before the condition of bodies deteriorated.

Dr Knapman remained calm as he faced questioning from Nigel Teare QC, counsel for the inquiry, based on relatives' allegations.

They believe he acted insensitively by not asking their permission to remove hands.

Dr Knapman also defended himself against suggestions that he failed to ensure a system that guaranteed the appropriate body went to the appropriate undertakers - and that the identification process was uncoordinated.

He said the removal of hands was a "last resort method used only when dental records and fingerprint identification had failed".

But he said that with no-one specifically charged with collating information about dental record investigations, some victims' hands were severed before other avenues had been exhausted.

'Dreadful tragedy'

Two days after the accident, Dr Knapman went on a short break and did not leave specific instructions about when the removal of hands was to be authorised, the hearing was told.

It could have been read as a blanket authority for removals.

In hindsight, Dr Knapman said, this was wrong because dental records were unknowingly still being sought.

As he finished giving evidence, the coroner said: "I would like to say to people here that everybody is well aware that this collision was a dreadful tragedy.

Resign call

"It must have been a harrowing experience for family and friends but all decisions were taken with the best of intentions and I deeply regret that some aspects of the aftermath have caused upset.

"I would just like to say how very sorry I am."

But at a press conference afterwards John Perks, of Watford, Hertfordshire, whose son Stephen, 23, was killed in the disaster, said: "His apology is too little too late.

"He should resign and if he does not we will call on the home secretary to take action."

Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, a long-time supporter of the Marchioness survivors and families group, called for the removal of limbs to be outlawed.

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