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Pathologists admit inability to identify all victims

The World Today - Tuesday, 10 February , 2009 12:26:00

Reporter: Alison Caldwell

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Police and forensic pathologists say it might not be possible to identify every
person who has died in Victoria's bushfires.

A taskforce is examining how people perished in the flames; the investigation could take up to 12
months.

Investigators will also look into whether or not some of the fires were deliberately lit.

If arson is to blame, the head of the taskforce says police will find those responsible.

Alison Caldwell reports.

ALISON CALDWELL: Justice Jennifer Coate is Victoria's State Coroner. Her office has admitted 101
bushfire victims over the past three days and the painstaking task of identifying each and every
one of them has begun.

JENNIFER COATE: We have implemented our disaster victim identification plan in response to the
significant number of reported deaths as a result of Victoria's bushfires.

ALISON CALDWELL: While it is nothing compared to what families of the dead are now facing, Justice
Coate says her office has a difficult job ahead.

JENNIFER COATE: I do ask, urge and plead with the community to understand that we are engaged in an
unprecedented enormously medically, scientifically and legally complex task and to get that right,
to ensure that we respect the dignity of all of those people that have now come into our care and
to give the answers to the families who have been bereaved by this tragedy, we are going to give
every single person that's come into our care, as much expertise as we can garner in this nation to
ensure that we've got right the identity of those persons that have come into our care and the
tasks of ensuring we understand what has happened to them.

ALISON CALDWELL: Assisting in the identification process is the director of the Victorian Institute
of Forensic Medicine, Professor Stephen Cordner.

He says people need to be prepared for the possibility that their relatives may never be
identified.

STEPHEN CORDNER: It is important, I think, that people appreciate that the effects of fire make the
elements that we rely upon to help identify in some cases, impossible to achieve, sadly.

There will be some cases unfortunately, where it will not be possible.

ALISON CALDWELL: Victoria Police has today announced a new taskforce to investigate whether the
fires were deliberately lit, and if so, arrest the offenders.

Involving some of the state's most experienced detectives, Taskforce Phoenix will investigate every
fire death and prepare inquest briefs for the Coroner.

Crime Department Assistant Commissioner Dannye Maloney is in charge of the taskforce.

DANNYE MALONEY: At the end of the day, we hope to produce identify all the victims, establish how
they died and produce inquest briefs on every individual deceased for the information of the
Coroner to determine the cause of death and other issues.

ALISON CALDWELL: He's asked the friends and relatives and neighbours of those killed to cooperate
with police and victim identification teams in the coming days and weeks. Fearing as many as 230
people may have been killed in the fires, he says identifying each one of them will be extremely
difficult

DANNYE MALONEY: We have a situation where people do go and seek support from neighbours. Do go to
their houses and try to be safe and sadly those houses are burnt so we have houses there with
unknown people within them that we've now got to identify and track their movement.

Similarly, we have people that left their homes, drove, got trapped, left their vehicles,
pedestrians who were picked up by other motorists trying to escape this tragedy and were killed in
cars in the passenger seats.

We must pin this all together.

ALISON CALDWELL: The Gippsland fires are believed to have been deliberately lit. The first stage of
the Churchill fire started over a week ago and was brought under control. Police believe it was
relit late last week.

There are reports that a photo fit will be released by police this afternoon.

Dannye Maloney shares concerns justice may be forgotten, as a witch-hunt gets underway for those
allegedly responsible for what happened.

DANNYE MALONEY: You are always concerned about fairness and so forth but look, we operate as
investigators on facts and then facts lead to evidence.

I would just encourage responsible media response in due course if in fact we prosecute anybody in
regard to these fires.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Taskforce Phoenix commander Assistant Commissioner Dannye Maloney, ending Alison
Caldwell's report.