Black and white photo of workshop with charred wood and rubble on the ground.

Screaming Over the Rubble: The Shifting Role of the Family in American Disaster Victim Identification

When the South Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida, collapsed in the early hours of June 24, I shuddered to think about how many lives had been lost. Because of my research on the history of disaster victim identification (DVI), however, I also started thinking ahead to the recovery of the dead. I knew that the conditions of the collapse meant that positive identifications would be a challenge: the victims’ bodies are commingled with the rubble and they will likely be in a poor physical state when recovered. The news that officials in Miami-Dade County were collecting DNA samples from the victims’ families made sense.

It also made me think about the complicated role that victims’ families have played in the history of DVI in the United States. Before the rise of forensic identification in the early twentieth century, relatives were the best suited to identify the dead. By the 1940s, however, the shift to a scientific identification paradigm often pushed the victims’ families to the margins, as fingerprint experts, radiographers, physicians, and medical examiners claimed authority over identification. Yet the tragedy in Surfside gives insight into how the role of victims’ families in DVI continues to evolve. Relatives provide critical information about the dead, contribute their DNA, and use their collective grief and outrage to spur officials on in their search for answers.

The level of family involvement we are seeing at Surfside is a relatively recent development. Before forensic DVI, the only method for identifying disaster victims was sight recognition. As the name suggests, the central component of this practice was recognition. Those making identifications had to view the remains in order to find significant links between the body in front of them and their personal memories of the deceased’s face, body, and clothing. Only those with a relationship with the victims – especially family, but sometimes friends or acquaintances – could name the dead. This practice of viewing the dead became more formal after the Civil War, to better assist families in their search for loved ones. For example, following the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, volunteers recovered the dead to temporary morgues, where undertakers cleaned and disinfected the bodies before letting survivors in to view the remains. While these undertakers facilitated sight recognition, the identifications were made exclusively by those who knew the victims.

But sight recognition places a heavy psychological burden on the friends and families of the deceased. When a fire on board the P.S. General Slocum killed over 1,000 people in New York in 1904, local newspapers ran several stories about the anguish experienced by the victims’ kin during identification. One such story in the New York Tribune described the case of Lena Rekanski, who, after locating her 10-year-old daughter, reportedly let out “a shriek that resounded along the pier.” After being led away from the body, she tried throwing herself into the East River but was stopped by morgue workers.[1] Such scenes of grief not only amplified the emotional tension in the morgue, but also became a spectacle for the thousands of New Yorkers who showed up to watch the drama unfold.[2] The disorder brought about by grief and spectacle prompted city officials to exert more control over the morgue, which would have consequences for victims’ families. When 146 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, police limited who could enter the morgue, causing severe agitation among the “sobbing and shrieking mothers and wives, and frantic fathers and husbands.”[3] Limiting access to the dead was an early step in the marginalization of victims’ families. While families were still crucial to the identification process, officials took charge of when, where, and how that process unfolded.

The great catastrophe of the passenger steamboat General Slocum, 1904. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Around the same time, officials also began to worry about the accuracy of sight recognition, leading to a diminution of the family’s authority in DVI. As death certificates became crucial legal documents (required for collecting insurance, for example), the issue of misidentification in the disaster morgue became a greater concern. Bureaucrats turned to the new techniques used by criminologists, who relied on anthropometric data to “read” identity in the body.[4] To help promote these techniques, advocates had to argue that sight recognition was ineffective. In their 1918 book Personal Identification: Methods for the Identification of Individuals, Living or Dead, zoologist H.H. Wilder and retired policeman Bert Wentworth went so far as to proclaim “Sight Recognition is not Identification.”[5] In the early twentieth century, this belief inspired others to develop additional means of identification that were objective, such as dental identification, which compared post-mortem information about the teeth and mouth with a victim’s ante-mortem dental chart. In this way, experts advocated for identification based on hard data and performed by trained experts.

Yet even as these experts laid claim to identification, they could not entirely exclude the victims’ families from the process. Although they were no longer the primary identifiers, relatives still provided crucial information about the dead. After the Texas City, Texas, industrial explosion in 1947, local officials called in the state’s Bureau of Identification and Records to identify some of the 581 victims that could not be recognized. To do so, bureau agents relied on victims’ dental records,fingerprint cards, and medical histories – all provided by the families. Families also gave details about clothing, tattoos, and scars, all of which would once have been used during sight recognition. Now, this information was merely one element in a larger constellation of data. It was up to the experts to assess this data to confirm a positive identification.

The introduction of DNA, which was first used in a mass fatality incident in 1990, has redefined how relatives can contribute to DVI but it also has reinforced the importance of expert authority in that process.[6] As a result, victims’ families have taken on a new role, advocating for their own needs and those of the dead. A major turning point in this history occurred in the mid-1990s, when the federal government’s poor handling of the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 in 1994 led the victims’ families to lobby the federal government to develop a more organized and more compassionate system for working with the next-of-kin after air disasters. The resulting Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 set a precedent for responding to family needs following a mass fatality incident.

The effects of that are apparent in Surfside today. Since June 24, victims’ relatives have been gathered at a Family Reunification Center, where officials meet with them regularly to give updates on the rescue and recovery operation and to assure them of the state’s commitment to their loved ones. Counselors, spiritual advisors, and therapy dogs are also on hand to help relatives cope with their trauma. Being gathered at the center allows the medical examiner’s office to collect DNA samples and other identifying information about the dead, such as the location of tattoos or birthmarks. Being together at the center also allows families to share their grief and, at times, their frustration. There is power in numbers: their collective demand to see the site of the disaster led officials to allow visits to the scene, where some shouted encouraging messages to those trapped inside.

As of this writing, Miami-Dade County officials have announced that the recovery efforts are likely to end soon, with 97 victims accounted for. The victims’ families have already started to turn their grief into action, filing lawsuits against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association to seek answers as to how this disaster could have happened and hold accountable those responsible for these unnecessary deaths. Their advocacy may help prevent another tragedy like this, which may be the most important role of all for these families.

Notes

  1. “Police Fear an Epidemic of Suicides,” NY Tribune (June 17, 1904), 2.
  2. “Crowd at Morgue So Big That More Police Are Called,” World Evening Edition (June 16, 1904), 1; “Wreck Said to Be Cleared of Bodies,” New York Times (June 17, 1904), 1.
  3. “New York Fire Kills 148,” Chicago Daily Tribune (March 26, 1911), 1.
  4. On this history, see Ian Burney and Christopher Hamlin, eds., Global Forensic Cultures: Making Fact and Justice in the Modern Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019); Simon Cole, Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  5. Harris Hawthorne Wilder and Bert Wentworth, Personal Identification: Methods for the Identification Individuals, Living or Dead (R.G. Badger, 1918), 17. Italics in the original.
  6. It is worth noting that, although many scientists believe DNA to be the “gold standard” of identification, it can also be logistically challenging and cost prohibitive. As such, most mass fatality identifications are still made using a combination of forensic data and personal information. See https://www.evidencemagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2860

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