The bodies of several of those who died when the Air India Express flight from Dubai crashed at the Mangalore airport on May 22 may have been misidentified by relatives, according to a paper published in the journal Current Science.

The finding by scientists at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad substantiate reports that have appeared in the media about such misidentification.

The air disaster had claimed 158 lives, including the passengers and crew. The remains of 136 persons were handed over after close relatives identified them. But the remaining 22 victims could either not be identified or had rival claimants.

The Centre, which had rushed two experts down to Mangalore on its own initiative and who used technique of genetic analysis to quickly put names to these as yet unidentified individuals.

“There was considerable pressure on us to deliver results because everybody was waiting,” said J. Gowrishankar, the Centre's director. There were grieving relatives who wanted the identification process over and done with. The district administration was concerned because there were no proper facilities in Mangalore to store bodies, which had begun to decompose. There was pressure from Air India too — three of whose flight crew were among those unidentified.

DNA profiling involves picking up telltale genetic signatures carried in human chromosomes. Identifying a person is based on similarities in their genetic signature with those of a close blood relative, typically a parent, child or sibling.

The Hyderabad laboratory needed to produce DNA profiles from the body samples of 22 victims and match them with those from the blood samples of 32 relatives.

Identities of 10 persons could be established within three days of the samples reaching Hyderabad, say the Centre's scientists in their Current Science paper.

Further genetic testing, which took more time, conclusively showed that the remaining 12 bodies were not related to any of the claimants. That came as a surprise, since all those on the ill-fated aircraft were listed in the flight manifest.

It indicated that several bodies had been mistakenly identified by relatives, who needed to rely on a person's features and personal effects to do so, observed the scientists.

They suggested that when handling similar events in the future, the mortal remains of victims be released to families only after suitable and authentic identification was completed. If that was not practical, tissue samples must be taken at the time of autopsy for retrospective DNA analysis. Arrangements should be made, such as by using portable refrigerated caskets, to preserve human remains till the identification process ended.

“Procedures for DNA-based victim identification should be incorporated as standard operating protocol in all disaster management plans.”

They went on to point out that this would also require substantial expansion of the volume of routine DNA profiling activities being done in the country at present, so that adequate resources and personnel could be requisitioned in an emergency.

There are not enough trained DNA examiners in the country currently, explained Dr. Gowrishankar, one of the authors of the paper. It would be possible to expand their numbers substantially only if the State police forces across the country began using such genetic techniques far more extensively for various criminal investigations. The police, in turn, faced financial constraints as well as the lack of sufficient numbers of trained scientific personnel. Ways must be found to address both problems.

The full paper can be found on the Current Science website currsci/