In the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi, the stream of bodies of fishermen, retrieved from the sea, into the state’s hospitals may have ceased. But, at least 33 bodies, in extreme stages of decomposition, still lie waiting to be identified at several mortuaries across Kerala.
Sitting in a tiny office inside the mortuary of the General Hospital in Kochi, which had an emergency medical team working round-the-clock for the last one month, Dr Biju James has a sole request: do justice to the dead as soon as possible.
“After someone dies, their body must be respected. It must be buried or cremated. Otherwise, it will decay. Now, I have done my work and paid my respects. The State should do its job now,” said an exasperated Dr James, the police surgeon, at the hospital.
“For identification, we have taken a bone marrow sample and given it to police. It will be sent to the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology in Thiruvananthapuram for DNA sampling. The body must now be given its due. It has been lying in an ice box for 30 days now. It is a health hazard,” he added.
Most of the 13 bodies, brought to the General Hospital here, were over a week old, with the process of decomposition having already begun in the sea and embalming not really proving to be effective. At present, the General Hospital mortuary houses two bodies of fishermen, which are in advanced stages of decay. Dr James, who did medico-legal autopsies on eight of the 13 bodies that were brought to the hospital, said all those which were identified through DNA sampling were handed over to families as soon as possible. Even though autopsies are rarely done after 4 pm in the evening, Dr James and his colleagues had to work a few nights till 3 am considering the emergency situation.
According to disaster management officials, a bulk of the bodies (16 out of 33) are lying in mortuaries in Kozhikode district as most of them were found floating off the coast there. While five bodies are preserved at hospitals in Ernakulam district, Thiruvananthapuram, Malappuram and Kannur districts have 3 bodies each at their respective mortuaries.
Prashanth S, an emergency medical technician at the hospital, spoke of seeing bodies, that had bloated beyond proportion.
“Many of them had been lying in the sea for over a week. They had swelled considerably to twice or thrice the size with physical identification virtually impossible. The anatomy had completely changed. The eyes were sometimes nibbled by fishes,” he said.
“Identification of the body is the biggest challenge,” he repeated.
On the other end of the spectrum, fulfilling this very objective of recognition of bodies, is a team of scientists at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB) in Thiruvananthapuram. Since the first week of December, these scientists have been bombarded with post-mortem samples from the bodies and matching blood samples from families of the fishermen. Through an intricate process of DNA sampling, they have been tasked with ensuring the right body is handed over to their family members. Over the past month, 30 bodies have been identified so far with over three dozen bodies still remaining to be matched.
“DNA sampling is a very time-consuming process. We got 68 post-mortem samples and 424 reference samples from families. Sometimes, the samples are contaminated. We have to be very careful,” said a scientist, who did not want to be identified.
“They (families) are anxious but we can’t explain the science to them,” he said. The RGCB is the only centre in the state which can test samples on such a large scale and were instrumental during the Puttingal temple tragedy when over 110 people perished in a major fire.
With families on the coasts of Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari still waiting for confirmation of the deaths of their loved ones, scientists at RGCB are working over-time, even on weekends, knowing that they have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. Along with emergency medical professionals, they are the unsung heroes in the worst tragedy to hit Kerala.