New Tool for Identifying Crash Victims

When a Russian passenger jet crashed in Norway last fall, forensic scientists had the gruesome task of identifying victims from sometimes minuscule body parts. A Norwegian team was able to identify nearly all the victims by comparing their DNA with that of family members--the first time DNA typing has been used with such success after an airline disaster. Experts say the findings, reported in the April issue of Nature Genetics, mark the advent of a valuable new tool for identifying remains.

On 29 August 1996, a jet carrying Russian and Ukrainian miners and their families to remote Spitsbergen Island north of the Norwegian coast crashed into a mountain, killing all 141 people aboard. Norwegian crews shipped body parts collected at the site to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo, Norway. Dental records and fingerprints--the traditional tools for identifying crash victims--were unavailable, so the forensic scientists took a different tack: DNA fingerprinting.

Working around the clock, a team led by Bjornar Olaisen took only 3 weeks to sequence eight stretches of junk DNA from each of 257 body parts. They found 141 unique DNA types, indicating that they had remains of all the victims. Meanwhile, the lab sequenced the same stretches in blood samples from family members of 139 victims. This led to the positive identification of remains from these victims; the other two were identified using other means. In accidents that cause severe mangling, the researchers say, DNA analysis may be the only way to identify small remains.

"They did a fantastic job," says Jack Ballantyne of the Sulfolk County Crime Laboratory in Hauppauge, New York, who led the DNA analysis of victims of the TWA flight 800 crash last July. He says the Norwegian team had "a bit of luck behind them," in that conditions were good for DNA preservation: Temperatures at Spitsbergen were about 0 degrees Celsius at the time of the accident--thus the tissues had degraded little--and the remains were recovered quickly. Nevertheless, he says, "DNA typing should now be regarded as a major [tool] for victim identification."