Authorities in Saskatchewan apologized Monday for an identity mix-up in which a hockey player was identified as among the 15 killed in last week’s bus crash — only to discover it was, in fact, his teammate that was killed.
Here’s a look at how the identification process generally unfolds when someone is found dead:
How identification happens in straightforward cases:
The mainstay of the identification effort for most medical examiners and coroners in Canada is the visual identification. For example, someone is found dead in an apartment. The superintendent or a relative who found the person or otherwise knows the person then positively identifies the deceased. If what they say checks out with other identifying information _ a passport or driver’s licence _ that’s probably going to be sufficient.
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“When you’re thinking about visual identification, that is often in circumstances where there are a number of other pieces of information that suggest that’s who the person is,” said Dr. Dirk Huyer, chief coroner in Ontario.
What if a body is decomposed or badly disfigured?
While fingerprints, X-rays, and characteristic tattoos or other markings on a body may help in the identification process, coroners will usually reach for dental records. That means taking the body to the local morgue, having a forensic dentist examine the teeth of the dead person, then comparing them with the person’s dental records.
“That’s often the easiest and quickest way to identify a body,” said Dr. Matt Bowes, chief medical examiner for Nova Scotia.
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Another option is using genetic matching. The problem is that it can take time to get the DNA comparisons done.
“You want to give information to families quickly and you want to figure things out as quickly as you can, so it’s always at the moment thinking what is the best approach to take,” Huyer said.
What difficulties did the Saskatchewan coroner face in the bus crash?
The situation in Saskatchewan was complex for several reasons. One of them was the large number of victims who had suffered terrible injuries that rendered them less recognizable. Further compounding the problem was that the teammates had dyed their hair blond for the playoffs, were of similar age and similar build.
“In addition to that, the coroner is probably under a tremendous amount of pressure to clear the scene for obvious reasons of compassion,” Bowes said. “Nobody likes to stand in the way of reuniting of the family and the loved one. This is certainly the kind of thing where an error could occur.”
Given the frailties inherent in any identification process, errors can and do occur, Bowes said.
“They’re famous in our community,” he said. “They’re one of the things we’re very mindful of.”
In one case, a man in Toronto was hit by a commuter train in 2004 and a visual identification by his sister was done. The family was at the funeral, when the man himself arrived at the sister’s house to say he wasn’t dead. “That would be one of the most extraordinary examples in Canadian history,” Bouwer said.
What should be done when ID mistakes do happen.
The important thing is to be very upfront and honest about what happened, Bowes said. He gave authorities in Saskatchewan credit for doing just that.
“We all have to remember these things do happen,” Bowes said. “Most people are tremendously forgiving when you’re humble and forthcoming with your error.”
Bowes also suggested a staff meeting to re-examine standard operating procedures to see what might have been done differently to prevent a recurrence of the mix-up. Even the best written procedures can be rewritten, he said.
Fortunately, the situation in Saskatchewan is an extraordinarily rare circumstance in Canada, Bowes said.
“A mass-fatality event with 15 dead is almost unknown in Canada. You can practically count them on the fingers of your hands. They are rare.”