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EDITIONS
Monday, 11 October, 1999, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Identifying the dead
carriages
Picking through the wreckage is a laborious task
Briefcases, wallets, handbags lying where they were thrown onto the track; cars left unclaimed by railway stations; families waiting for the safe return of a loved one ...

Police, pathologists, the coroner and his officers, and forensic experts are working methodically and relentlessly to piece together these and other clues to identify every single person who lost their life in the train crash in west London.

London Train Crash
Westminster Coroner Dr Paul Knapman told reporters that wherever possible, visual identification would be used to identify victims.

But when that was not possible, fingerprints could be matched with those in the person's home - or a body could sometimes be identified by scars, tattoos, or even clothing and jewellery.

Painstaking work

However, the intensity of the fire in the front carriage means that very little evidence of this nature will be available to investigators.

Dr Knapman said: "I think very few, if any, identifiable people will come out of that carriage."

The search for evidence is therefore of necessity, laboriously slow. No stone can be left unturned, as every item recovered, its position and condition, may help the authorities to establish what happened.

And, more crucially for the families left desperately hoping that their loved ones might not have been on the train, each piece of evidence helps to pinpoint exactly who perished.

cars left at railway station
Police are checking the registration of cars left at railway stations to trace their owners
Police have been conducting fingertip searches of both the track and land surrounding the scene, and the carriages which are stable enough to be explored - marking off each section searched on map grids.

Some bodies have so far been identified - and police say that more may be found under the broken carriages when they are moved.

Even in the cinders of the devastated first class carriage, evidence may yet be found which could confirm the identities of those who died in the fire there.

Rob Smith of the Forensic Science Service said that wherever possible, pathologists would try to establish identities from dental records, or from bloodstains or other "live" traces left at the scene.

But he said that using a procedure called mitochondrial DNA testing, even "dead material" such as fragments of bone and hair can be used to identify a body.

He said: "We pioneered this technique and it was used by us recently to establish that bones recovered in Russia were actually the remains of the Tzar.

casualty bureau
Officers at the Casualty Bureau want to know if those initially reported missing have returned home
"We would work under the police in a case such as this, and if they decided that mitochondrial DNA testing was appropriate, we would take samples from living relatives - maybe hair or blood samples - and compare them with those taken from samples at the scene."

Police have announced that they are to begin the grim task of sifting through the ashes of the carriage in the days to come.

A team of pathologists and police experts will work from a platform over the detritus of the section of train once it has been stabilised.

Mr Smith said: "A trained and experienced eye will know what to look for - even in circumstances as difficult and trying as these.

"Our experts worked in similar conditions after the King's Cross fire. It can be difficult for them. They are professional and highly experienced people, but this will be a painstaking task."

But there remains the prospect that physical evidence will never be found to prove that some passengers were actually on the train.

As well as the trauma that situation represents, it can also lead to practical difficulties for families who want to register the death of their loved one, and then maybe claim benefits, pensions or insurance.

Upon instructions from the Home Secretary, a coroner can instruct a registrar to register a death without there being a body, and the coroner can also open an inquest in similar circumstances.

And of course, without a death certificate, many processes within the Benefits Agency, such as claiming widow's benefit, cannot be initiated.

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 ON THIS STORY
Audio
Dr Paul Knapman: "It's very likely that very few, if any, identifiable people will come out of that carriage"
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