Fallen from the sky
New Zealand police officers have helped identify victims of the MH17 air tragedy. Ellen Brook reports.
At a small military base in the Netherlands, six New Zealand police officers have been part of an international team working to put names to the bodies recovered from the wreckage of flight MH17.
Inspector Mike Wright (pictured), leader of the first rotation of three Kiwi officers, has been associated with disaster victim identification (DVI) since 1977. When he headed to the Netherlands last July, he knew what to expect.
The whole world knew that a Malaysian Airlines plane had disintegrated in Ukrainian air space on July 17, the ugly debris appearing daily on TV screens. The horror intensified when it became clear that the jet had been shot down.
Two-thirds of the 298 victims were Dutch citizens. There were 10 other nationalities, including a New Zealand woman who lived in Australia and a New Zealand resident travelling on a British passport.
With the crash site far away in another country, outside the control of the international DVI teams, the authorities had to rely on what could be recovered by others. In such a disaster, it’s normal for a crash site to be treated as a crime scene.
The area should be gridded off and human remains tagged, numbered and taken to the mortuary. In this case, there were many problems at the crash scene, with reports of looting and items being moved about. Those recovering the victims in Ukraine did the best they could and eventually a sad convoy of coffins began arriving in the Netherlands where they were delivered into the hands of the DVI specialists.
By the time Mike and his colleagues– Senior Constable Al Hendrickson of Blenheim and Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupo – arrived in the Netherlands, the mortuary phase was under way, as was the ante-mortem (AM) phase, in which information about a person is gathered from outside sources such as relatives and dental and medical records.
Along with about 20 other DVI experts from the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain, the United States and Interpol, the three New Zealanders were part of the reconciliation phase, in which all the available information is combined to, hopefully, positively identify a victim.
At the end of the team’s three-week assignment, 127 of the 298 passengers had been identified, including 29-year-old Rob Ayley, who had been heading home to New Zealand. By the time the second Kiwi unit (Inspector Geoff Logan of Police National Headquarters, Senior Sergeant Steve Harwood of Hutt Valley and Sergeant Karl Wilson of Auckland) finished, 183 people had been identified.
A flag ceremony (pictured right) was held at the Hilversum military base were the DVI teams were stationed. Countries that had residents involved in the MH17 disaster were represented by a flag. A representative from each nation laid flowers at the base of each flagpole.
The stuff of DVI CVs
For DVI staff, catastrophic events are the stuff of their CVs. What for anyone else would be a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy are for them points along the learning curves of their careers. For Mike, they include the Boxing Day tsunami (2004),the Air NZ Airbus A320 crash in the South of France (2008, seven died during a test flight), Operation Fox (2010, nine dead in a plane crash at Fox Glacier airstrip, South Westland), the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake (181* deaths) and the Carterton ballooning accident (2012, 11 deaths).
Of his latest deployment, Mike says: “It was therapeutic to benchmark our activity in the past in Christchurch against what was happening in the Netherlands and we were able to share some of our experience from those operations with the Dutch DVI commander.”
For example, the New Zealanders knew that a lot of technology (computers and screens) would be needed to cope with the volume of the work, along with the training and support that would be required for staff.
The reconciliation phase is emotionally draining; on one screen there might be a happy smiling face – the last photo taken at an airport before departure – and on the other screen, human remains, with the DVI expert trying to match the two.
When the images and remains are finally resolved into a real person, with a name, a birth date and other details confirmed, the DVI unit has completed its task.
“We are working to provide a sense of dignity to the victims and to bring closure for the families,” says Mike.
In the face of such overwhelming death and destruction, a pragmatic and methodical approach is vital to achieve the desired results. Everyone knows it’s not work for the faint-hearted; it takes one of the toughest aspects of policing to another level. Dealing with one dead body is not easy; dealing with hundreds is a challenge.
Coping with the repeated exposure comes with experience and that’s why most DVI police come through the ranks of the search and rescue teams. That’s where Mike started and over time he’s found his own way of handling the tough jobs. “The way I deal with it is, I see that the spirit is gone and moved on to wherever that person might see themselves being.”
Helping give some measure of closure for the families left behind is rewarding, but, says Mike, it leaves its mark. “While we are always striving to do our best by the victim’s family, seeing and feeling their grief can be emotionally draining for us too. While working in France on the Air NZ plane crash there, for a period we lived with the families of the victims. You can’t help but absorb their grief.”
New Zealand has some really strong people in Police, he says, but when he first joined, the attitude towards officers involved in difficult events was “suck it up”.
“One of the most encouraging aspects reflected in this recent deployment, is where Police has got to now. The Police Association and Police both fronted up with support and recognition that this was a difficult piece of work. Welfare and counselling are standard now. As an organisation, we have come to recognise the importance of that.”
When the call came from Interpol for international participation in the MH17DVI operation, New Zealand Police was confident about offering a team. Its DVI unit was set up in 2003 in response to the terrorist bombings in Bali in 2002. Although DVI protocols had been long established within Police, there had previously been no dedicated unit. Since then, New Zealand Police DVI teams have been involved in several events around the world and are on call 24/7 around the country.
The Erebus Ethos
Despite the many deployments, Mike says the ethos of the DVI teams always relates back to the Antarctica plane crash at Mt Erebus in 1979; to “the guys on the ice who excelled in such difficult circumstances”. The work done by those police officers is the “ultimate benchmark”, he says. “We might have had more deployments, but what they achieved still excels in international DVI work.”
Mike’s not in the job for a pat on the back. His best satisfaction, he says, is going home after an event knowing that he has made a contribution to families by bringing closure.
It’s fair to say, though, that in the face of the utter devastation and grief of this latest disaster, which affected people around the world, the Kiwi DVI team stood up to play their part with pride and professionalism that reflects the spirit of the achievements of the men on Erebus.
* The official death toll from the second Christchurch earthquake was 185. The DVI teams dealt with 181 bodies; the four other victims were not part of the DVI process because they died from other medical causes related to the quake, such as heart attacks.