Friends and family visit Olds’ Graysen Cameron in hospital. Cameron was one of the 14 injured in a bus crash on Friday in Saskatchewan. The Humboldt Broncos team was travelling for a playoff game when the crash took place. Photo via Twitter/Levi Mitchell.

CP Explains: How bodies are identified by the authorities

The Canadian Press takes a look at how the identification process generally unfolds when someone is found dead

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.

Related: Body in Humboldt Broncos bus crash misidentified: justice ministry

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.

“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.

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.

Related: Dyed hair a factor in Humboldt bus crash victim mix-up

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.”

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Deboon retires from conservation service

After nearly 30 years of service as a conservation officer in the… Continue reading

VIDEO: Highway 3A reopened after mudslide cleared

A mudslide closed Highway 3A between Castlegar and Nelson just north of the Brilliant Dam on Wednesday.

Gallery: Fernie Alpine Resort closing weekend

Our best photos from the Powder, Pedal, Paddle relay race, Fernival and Slope Soaker.

Focus on emergency preparedness

Fernie to host 2018 Association of Kootenay Boundary Local Governments Convention from April 18-20.

VIDEO: Gerry Pang – the heart of hockey

After coaching hockey goaltenders since 1997, Gerry Pang has finally decided to hang up the skates.

Could facial scans and fingerprints make you unhackable?

New biometrics capabilities could be a game-changer for those trying to get on your accounts

Countdown is on to the 2018 B.C. Summer Games

Cowichan Valley hosts on July 19-22

Driving Change: A B.C. man’s charitable trip across Canada

A Kelowna man, his bus, and his mission for positive change across our country

Case of teacher secretly filming teens reaches top court

Acquittal of teacher, Ryan Jarvis, who secretly videoed teens ‘dangerous,’ top court told

Why a 14-year-old will lead the charge at annual marijuana protest on the Hill

Marijuana enthusiasts have long been circling April 20 on their calendars as annual day of cannabis

B.C. communities await marine spill compensation years after incidents

The government maintains a Ship Source Oil Pollution Fund to compensate Canadians

RCMP say too early to know what happened in Broncos crash

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said collission very complex

Conservative MP wants feds to close loophole for illegal border crossers

Immigration advocates call on government to suspend Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement

Alberta university criticized for honouring David Suzuki

University of Alberta plans to bestow environmentalist with honourary degree

Most Read