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How an Australian forensic biologist helped identify victims of Boxing Day tsunami

By Sarah Kanowski for Conversations, Monday February 26, 2018 - 12:09 EDT
ABC licensed image
Kirsty Wright looking for the bones of children at the mortuary in Phuket. - ABC licensed

The smell of the dead stays with forensic biologist Kirsty Wright.

"It would settle into the pores of your skin and you'd breathe it in your hair," she said.

"After you had a shower you would go to bed and you'd still smell it. You'd still smell it on your skin and it would still be inside your lungs. It was really terrible."

Dr Wright was at her Gold Coast home on Boxing Day in 2004.

In between a bike ride and swimming at the beach, she watched the news of the tsunami unfold on television.

The world was horrified as the scale of the tragedy became clear, but for Dr Wright it was personal.

"I did start to get a sick feeling in my stomach, thinking 'Hey this is maybe something that I will have to become involved with'," she said.

The Australian Federal Police had scientists and officers on the ground in Thailand within two weeks of the tsunami. In April, Dr Wright was sent to join them.

Forensic biologists are detectives, studying the human body for clues to help with investigations.

Dr Wright was not unfamiliar with disasters — she had identified victims of 9/11 and the Bali Bombings.

But sitting on the tarmac at Brisbane Airport, Dr Wright knew what was waiting for her in Thailand would be of a completely different scale.

"I knew it would change me forever," she said.

Hated math, hated science

Dr Wright's career as a forensic biologist surprises no one more than her.

"As a kid, I hated science with a passion! Hated math, hated science," she said.

She wagged a lot of school in years 11 and 12, and after high school worked in Hungry Jack's and a fish and chips' shop.

Her passion was sport and it was an interest in the mechanics of the human body that finally led her to university.

It took her a few attempts, but she was finally accepted to study science at university, becoming the first person in her family to go on to further study.

"Once I was in, it was such a privilege to be able to learn," she said.

"I don't know what happened but just a light bulb went off and I was like a sponge. I was just sitting reading textbooks on the weekends and loving it."

All of Dr Wright's skills would be called on in Thailand.

Entire families, evidence washed away

When Dr Wright arrived in Thailand, the bodies of 8,000 victims had been recovered — only one identification had been made using DNA.

There was widespread frustration that progress was so slow, given DNA had proved such an effective tool for identifying victims of 9/11 and the Bali Bombings.

The situation after the tsunami was completely different, not only because of the epic scale of the disaster, but because the ocean had washed all the evidence away.

DNA identification works by matching DNA found in human remains with DNA known to belong to a victim, like a toothbrush or from a close family member.

In the tsunami, all of the victims' belongings had been destroyed and entire families were dead.

Because the tsunami happened when it was winter in the northern hemisphere, most of the foreign victims were European.

The Germans lost 490 people, the Swedes about 500, and the Finns 200. Twenty-three Australians were killed.

Many of the Europeans were travelling in extended family groups.

Dr Wright remembers a surviving Finn who lost his three young children, his wife, his two parents and his two in-laws.

Truckloads of bodies waiting in temples

Thai culture holds that if someone dies from a sudden or violent death their spirit needs to be placated by keeping their body in a temple, known as a Wat.

Truckloads of bodies were now laid out in temples, row after row, in the baking humidity.

Bodies were rapidly decomposing, losing identifiers such as fingerprints and tattoos. They became bloated and darkened.

Locals, desperate to cremate their loved ones, were taking away the wrong remains from the temple grounds.

For the scientists, conditions were horrendous.

Eventually, a new mortuary temple was opened, the size of five football fields, allowing monks and scientists to exist together, chanting and analysing DNA side-by-side.

Many Thais were wary of entering this mortuary, believing the ghosts of the dead were everywhere.

Dr Wright heard stories of tsunami ghosts, like the tuktuk driver who picked up a foreigner and halfway through the trip turned to discover there was no passenger, only a puddle of water.

A giant genetic jigsaw puzzle

The DNA team was under enormous pressure from the government, the media, and most of all, from the responsibility the scientists themselves felt to the victims and their families.

They needed to start making identifications and they needed to be 100 per cent accurate.

Dr Wright was particularly conscious of the remains of the 500 children who were not going to be identified "unless we came up with a solution".

The methods of identifying adults through dental records and fingerprints, in addition to DNA analysis, were not applicable to children.

"I couldn't go to a textbook. I couldn't, you know, Google," she said.

Dr Wright realised she would have to work backwards — firstly matching family groups among the remains and then linking these to the lists of missing people.

She tasked a team of English police investigators to draw up family trees from different countries, then her team matched these with victim's DNA like a "giant genetic jigsaw puzzle".

The team managed to identify 350 missing children and, just like a cardboard jigsaw, the remaining victims were found more and more easily.

This brought the scientists relief, but no joy.

"Every single day there was horrible. There was no such thing as a good day or an easy day," she said.

"Every time the alarm went off and you woke up, you knew that it was going to be a really, really bad day, so I think you had to brace yourself for that."

'When are you going to find us?'

Driving to the mortuary, Dr Wright passed a memorial wall that stretched for hundreds of metres: photos of children and adults, teddy bears and flowers.

It was a dirt road, often washed out, and so the drive past the wall was slow.

"I tried not to look, I promised myself not to look. But you'd kind of look sideways at these pictures, just thousands of them, and the eyes tended to follow you and they're always asking, 'When are you going to find us'," she said.

These questions were echoed by living family members.

Some of the foreign tourists who had lost children refused to return home without their remains.

These grieving family members would wait in the mortuary each day, and whenever Dr Wright walked by they would look at her hopefully.

Dr Wright learnt to keep her eyes down, until she had news to share.

The longing to reclaim a child's body was intensified by the guilt many of these tsunami survivors felt.

One Swedish couple were on a boat with their young son when they saw the massive wave coming towards them.

There were not enough life jackets on board, so they grabbed the last one for their six-year-old son, kissed him goodbye, and lowered him overboard.

Surely the boat would capsize, they thought, and although they would drown he would be safe. But somehow the boat rolled over the wave and everybody on board survived.

Rescuers later found their son's small body, wearing the life jacket.

These stories of grief, told with cruel variations, again and again, were what pushed Dr Wright to keep going, to offer the small solace of reuniting a family, allowing a child to be taken home.

We're not scientists, we are humanitarians

Dr Wright said after her experience in Thailand she has been vocal in saying forensic biologists are not scientists but humanitarians.

"I think it's not knowing what's happened to a loved one, being able to say a goodbye to loved ones who, quite literally, in some instances were ripped from your hands," she said.

"I think it's important to understand what those human needs are so we can do our jobs properly."

Of the repatriation ceremonies Dr Wright attended, one in particular stands out.

"We were able to identify seven Swedish children all in one go, and were invited by the Swedish team to take part in what was quite a personal ceremony that had the family members there of the deceased children, those that survived," she said.

"To see little tiny white coffins of varying sizes, some big enough for a baby to fit into, these seven tiny little coffins with the Swedish flag draped over each of them.

"The ceremony was in Swedish and I didn't understand a word of it but it was the most moving thing I have ever been a part of."

By the time Dr Wright finished her rotation in December, thousands of remains had been identified.

The 300 that remain are believed to be the bodies of illegal Burmese migrants, whose families had been afraid to come forward to the Thai authorities.

The effort to identify and return their remains continues.

Adjusting to life after tsunami

"Being over there for five months you live and breathe death, that's what you do all day every day and that becomes your normal," Dr Wright said.

"Then you get on a plane, travel and you are back in another country within a few hours and it doesn't give you much time to adjust."

Back home in Australia, Dr Wright found the world had moved on, with the devastation caused by the Boxing Day tsunami no longer in the news.

She was uncomfortable with the daily routines of life, and irritated by friends who complained about traffic jams and other trivialities.

This new perspective on the preciousness of human life has stayed with her.

"It really does take a lot to ruffle me nowadays," she said with a laugh.

But not everything she took from her time in Thailand was positive.

After returning home, Dr Wright immersed herself in work, not wanting to stop and think about "the horrible images" filed away in her mind.

It took about six years for her to acknowledge the effects of what she'd experienced and to start being able to talk about it.

She still hasn't discussed her time in Thailand with her parents.

When Dr Wright left Thailand she swore she'd never return, but now she's not so sure.

Like others who helped in the aftermath of the tsunami, returning one day may be a way for her to help lay her own ghosts to rest.

Listen to on Conversations.


© ABC 2018

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