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

Green Aura cannabis dispensary shuts down

Decision follows appearance at North Cowichan council meeting

Drought alert posted for Koksilah and Chemainus Rivers

Around the Cowichan region hot, dry weather is drying up tributary streams as well

Canadian Tire delivers toys to ease kids’ street play pain in Chemainus

It’s like Christmas for 11 kids who are supposed to be confined to their yards by strata bylaw

Demolishing old Crofton Elementary School can’t come fast enough

Residents getting action on abandoned building that’s such an eyesore to the community

Two Chemainus Secondary students rewarded for their woodworking

Fotheringham and Gladman take home two of North Cowichan’s available three awards

VIDEO: Trudeau shuffles familiar faces, adds new ones to expanded cabinet

Justin Trudeau shuffles his front bench Wednesday to install the roster of ministers that will be entrusted with leading the Liberal team into next year’s election.

Wildfires erupt in B.C. Okanagan forcing evacuation orders and a highway closure

Check out a list of up-to-date information on blazes happening within the Kamloops Wildfire Centre.

Grizzly bear jumps in river, chases B.C. kayaker

The bear got a bit too close for comfort along the Elaho River near Squamish

Island man convicted of 1999 sex assault at Fraser Valley music festival

James Allen Redden, formerly of Nanaimo, was found guilty of three charges

Parks Canada looks to shine light on cloudy future for historic sites

A plan is in place to produce 10-year plans designed to turn around sagging attendance figures

B.C. poet shines a bright light on struggle with homelessness

Book launch for John La Greca’s Homeless Memorial is at Vernon’s Gallery Vertigo July 21.

Ontario police say attack on Muslim man was motivated by hate

Two men, aged 27 and 19, have been charged with assault in the incident

City orders largest Kinder Morgan protest camp to leave

Residents of Camp Cloud near the Trans Mountain work site have 72 hours to leave

14-year-old pilot attempts to break Guinness World Record at B.C. airport

Mohd Shaikhsorab wants to become youngest pilot with fewest hours logged to fly solo

Most Read