Of the 59 bodies recovered on Abaco following Hurricane Dorian, drowning was the likely cause of death for nearly half of them, according to a senior pathologist at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), who yesterday called for the implementation of a national mass fatality plan.
Coroner Jeanine Weech-Gomez is holding an inquest into the presumed deaths of 34 people reported missing after the storm.
While testifying before that inquest, Dr. Kiko Bridgewater said that a pathology team comprising of himself, Dr. Caryn Sands, who is also a senior pathologist, several junior doctors and mortuary staff traveled to Marsh Harbour, Abaco, as a part of a mass fatality response team in the aftermath of Dorian – a catastrophic Category 5 storm that battered the island in September 2019.
He said the pathology team was accompanied by police photographers, other crime scene investigative officers and forensic lab scientists on various occasions.
Bridgewater said victims were examined on September 10, 12, 16, 2019; October 29, 2019; January 27, 2020, and March 9, 2020.
“The bodies were received in varying states of preservation ranging from well-preserved, which was a few of the early bodies that would’ve been discovered, all the way to skeletonized and in some cases body parts like a forearm or a skull,” he said.
“The bodies were housed in a single 40-foot refrigerated trailer which we also used as a temporary morgue facility for the examination of the remains given the difficulty of moving bodies back and forth between the clinic morgue, the Marsh Harbour Healthcare Centre, and the actual trailer itself and that facility. The Marsh Harbour healthcare clinic was only designed to house six bodies, which was why the trailer was necessary.”
Bridgewater said only 18 of the body bags were labeled with some type of identifying information such as The Mudd, Bay Street, Abaco Hardware, Central Pine, Seventh Day Adventist Church, etc.
He said those identifiers were based on where the bodies were found.
Weech-Gomez asked if the bags were labeled prior to being brought to the morgue.
Bridgewater replied, “Prior to coming to the trailer, they would’ve been labeled.”
Due to the extent of the decomposition, the “vast majority of victims were not identifiable by visual means”, according to Bridgewater.
He said there were attempts to fingerprint victims where possible.
However, according to Bridgewater, this was unsuccessful.
“We performed external examinations on each of the victims at least twice, including measurement of body length, estimation of weight, descriptions of clothing, tattoos, gender, age approximation, level of decomposition, hair color and presence of identifying documents on the deceased individuals,” he said.
“Any written descriptions on the body bags were recorded. Samples of soft tissue, muscle, bone and teeth were kept for DNA analysis where available, with the exception of individuals with identifying documents on their person. Photos of all of the bodies were taken.
“The bodies were tagged with a unique identification number and placed in new body bags which were labeled accordingly. Temporary death certificates with the unique identifying number assigned were prepared for each individual and left with the clinic administrator to be handed over to the island administrator.”
Bridgewater said five victims were visually identified and released to relatives.
He said DNA samples were obtained on September 12 and 16, October 29, 2019, January 29 and March 9, 2020.
“Special additional DNA samples were taken on October 29 in an effort to try a rapid DNA technique that became available with unsuccessful results,” he said.
“Between September 10, 2019, and March 9, 2020, there were 60 sets of remains recovered. One was non-human remains. So, of the 59 human remains examined, there were 50 adults, six children and three uncertain age.
“Thirty-seven were identified as male, 20 were female and sex could not be determined for two of the cases. Causes of death were written as either likely drowning, where we had sufficient evidence to support that, and that was for 28 of the victims and for 30, the cause of death was written as undetermined on those death certificates.”
It is believed that one person believed to have died may not be deceased “based on information we would’ve gotten from police”, according to Bridgewater.
He said that person is linked to a male forearm — attached to a woman — that was found.
Bridgewater said the two were determined to be a parent and a child who lost his arm.
“On learning that plans to bury unidentified victims were underway, the entire team returned to Abaco under the instruction of the coroner along with police photographers, forensic lab scientists and representatives of the United Funeral Directors Association on March 9, , to examine the last set of recovered victims, to cross-check previously examined victims, attach additional permanent labels obtained to all victims and take further backup DNA samples as precautionary measures to eliminate the possibility of anything going wrong,” Bridgewater said.
“Any newly discovered remains were also examined. Death certificates would’ve been prepared and handed over at that time.”
He said the presumptive identifications were made for five individuals based on the presence of identification on them.
Bridgewater said three individuals had names written on their body bags and were, therefore, presumed to be those individuals.
He said nine individuals were identified by DNA analysis.
Bridgewater said there is a need for a national mass fatality plan that incorporates all stakeholders, including police officers, defense force officers, funeral directors, the pathology team, counselors and others.
“Training exercises are needed so that structure and command chain [can] be established for better organization of the response; the appropriate stakeholders are alerted at the right time; provisions are made to properly mobilize the necessary human and physical assets; first responders know how the recovery of bodies should be done; all vital information is appropriately recorded; proper scene photos are taken prior to body removal; correct labeling of body bags is done; remains are appropriately stored; there is issuance of appropriate instructions to family members in order to ensure quick identification, etc. [and] counseling of surviving family members is made available,” he said.
He said there is a need for the establishment of a national forensic morgue.
Bridgewater said it would need to be separate from PMH for processing of all deaths coming under the jurisdiction of the coroner.
“The national forensic morgue should be fully staffed and budgeted for by the government and have its own protocols independent of the Public Hospitals Authority,” he said.
“It should be directly under the coroner with support from various ministries including the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness, [Ministry of] National Security and any other appropriate ministry.”
Bridgewater said a mobile temporary mortuary unit is also needed.
He said it would need to be outfitted with examination tables and a temporary body storage refrigeration unit which can be transported by sea to any island or cay in The Bahamas.