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

It’s here: tackling opioid addiction in Ladysmith

Nine overdose deaths in two years “pretty alarming considering this is a small town”

Spending support helps keep Chemainus Rotary auction going strong

Event a labour of love for club members to generate funds for the community

Robert Barron column: Break-ins violate more than your property

My home has been broken into twice in the decade that I have lived there.

Switchbacks ease Holland Creek trail climb

New path section near the footbridge makes the link to Heart Lake more accessible

Nelson finds her calling as Chemainus’ community paramedic

Switching careers from instrument repair music to her ears

UPDATE: Four victims identified in deadly Penticton shooting spree

John Brittain, 68, faces three counts of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder

Answers for your Ladysmith home-buying questions

VIREB Real Estate Consumer Conference has lots of information for buyers and sellers

Prince George sweeps to first-ever BC Hockey League crown

Spruce Kings beat Vernon Vipers 3-1 in the Okanagan Wednesday for 13th straight playoff win

Hwang’s first MLS goal lifts Whitecaps to 1-0 win over LAFC

Vancouver picks up first victory of season

Child-proof your windows ahead of warm weather: B.C. expert

Fifteen children were taken to BC Children’s Hospital for falls in 2018

B.C. trucker pleads guilty to lesser charges in fatal Manitoba crash

Gurjant Singh was fined $3,000 and given a one-year driving prohibition.

Study links preschool screen time to behavioural and attention problems

The research looked at more than 2,400 families

Island man guilty of child porn charges, Crown alleges 250,000 images

Psychiatric assessment requested by Crown, sentencing to be set June 4 in Nanaimo court

More than $100,000 raised for family of professional skier who died near Pemberton

Dave Treadway leaves behind his pregnant wife and two young boys

Most Read