South Africa

‘Identification tricky’ – Bodies in state of decomposition in George building collapse

The bodies of the deceased will be released to families once the identification process is completed.

The identification process of the bodies retrieved from the building collapse in George is already underway, the Western Cape Forensic Pathology Service has confirmed.

By 13:15pm on Monday, the death toll stood at 27 as rescue efforts continue at the collapse site on Victoria Street.

According to the George Local Municipality, 25 people remained unaccounted for while 13 were still in hospital.

Eighty-one people were on site at the time of the collapse a week ago.

Additionally, 55 workers being rescued and recovered, including 33-year-old tiler Gabriel Guambe who was found alive and removed from the debris over the weekend.

Bodies in state of decomposition

Speaking to the media on Monday, Floyd Herwels, the assistant director of the Forensic Pathology Service in George, said there was a concerted effort to expedite the identification of the deceased, aiming to offer closure to the grieving families.

“Once there is a possibility that a family member is linked to a specific body, we will put them in immediate contact with the police and the detective’s branch will then assist us to bring the family to the Forensic Pathology Service where we will start a formal process.

“If the bodies are visually identifiable, we will go that route because it will assist us to get the body identified quicker. However, if not, we’ll have to go the scientific route by means of fingerprints or DNA,” he told reporters at the site.

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Herwels indicated that some bodies that have been recovered were in a state of decomposition.

“The bodies that are being recovered are in a state of decomposition, and that makes the visual identification a little bit more tricky and difficult.

“Normally, we would not show any pictures to any families of any bodies that are in a state of decomposition, but because of the situation we find ourselves in, we have to sensitise the family members to the fact that the pictures might be gory.

“This will assist us to link a family because even though the body is slightly visually identifiable, we still have to go the DNA route to get them formally identified.”

Postmortem process

Herwels said the bodies will be released to families once the identification process was completed.

“The issue is that we have made certain consensus and we are speeding things up as fast as we can, but at this stage we also just ask for a little bit of patience so it will allow us to go through the processes.

“Obviously, we are working overtime [and] we’re doing extra shift. As the bodies come in, we will go through the postmortem process so we can get the pictures done.

“I understand that the families want closure and answers, but they should give us at least a day after the body has been recovered.”

Minute of silence for deceased workers

The Forensic Pathology Service official pointed out that the identification process may be delayed by certain nitty-gritties.

“If they do not have immediate family members in George, that will make things slightly more difficult for us in terms of matching a body with DNA.”

He further said only one of the deceased has thus far been positively identified.

“We have one formal identification that’s done. The whole process is done so that the body can actually be released to the family.

READ MORE: George building collapse: Families plead with Cele to let them onto site

“We also have a number of bodies that have actually been linked to some family members, so the actual physical identification process where it becomes formal, is already underway.

“It’s little things like paperwork that is still needed for us to be able to do the identification, and as soon as that’s done, we can release the bodies to the families,” Herwels added.

A minute of silence at 14:09, the exact time the building collapsed, to remember the lives lost in the incident, was held on Monday.

The Western Cape government and the Department of Employment and Labour will launch separate independent investigations into the collapse.