When Disaster Strikes: Forensic Dentistry and Disaster Victim Identification

by Beverly Fast

When Swissair flight 111 crashed into the ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998, the impact rattled windows, shook homes and woke residents in nearby communities. The shockwaves reached even further.

Background image: Swissair flight 111 memorial at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.

Swissair flight 111 memorial at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.

The Canadian Press/David Boily

It was just after 10:30 p.m. on September 2nd when the sirens in Peggy’s Cove went off. News that a jetliner had gone down had Coast Guard ships racing to the area and local fishermen taking to their boats to join the search for survivors. In shallow seas about 14 kilometres offshore, they were met with the grim evidence of disaster. Flight 111 was travelling at an estimated 550 kilometres an hour when it hit the water. The jet shattered on impact, killing all 229 passengers and crew.

When disaster strikes, the emergency rescue response is immediate. But an investigative process spanning federal, provincial, municipal and even international boundaries is also set in motion. One line of inquiry seeks to find out what happened and why. Another seeks to identify the victims—a task that requires the skills of a multidisciplinary team.

Major Richard Groves (DMD’90) remembers getting the call asking him to stand ready. A career military man, Major Groves graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada with a Bachelor of Science in Honours Mathematics and Physics in 1979. He served as a communications and electronics engineering officer around the world before switching his career focus to dentistry. As a member of the military, he was able to apply to schools across the country. The five-year program brought him to the University of Saskatchewan, where he graduated with his Doctor of Dental Medicine in 1990. Two years later, he took a training course in forensic odontology through the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

“After I took the course, I was on the list of people who could be used for disaster victim identification (DVI) operations,” Major Groves says. Six years later, about to embark on his first mission as a member of the Canadian Forces Dental Services (CFDS) Forensic Team, he remembers being both nervous and excited. “I had no actual experience with dental forensics—it’s an essential military skill because we have to be able to identify soldiers lost in battle, but it’s not something you use frequently.”

Still, the desire to help was strong. He arrived in Halifax two weeks after the crash. By that time, a temporary morgue had been set up at CFB Shearwater outside Halifax. “We got off the plane at noon and by 2:00 p.m. we were busy in the morgue. It was surreal,” he says. “The process was well established so we just started working. There was so much to be done, and you want to be useful.”

Over the following weeks, Major Groves joined pathologists, nurses, radiologists, x-ray technicians, RCMP photographers and fingerprint technicians, DNA specialists and other dentists working to identify human remains recovered from the sea, the shore and the submerged wreckage. Only one victim was visually identifiable. The remaining 228 had to be identified through a combination of medical and dental detective work.

Major Richard Groves

"It’s an essential military skill because we have to be able to identify soldiers lost in battle."

Major Richard Groves

The forensic dentistry involved several tasks. The most difficult, both physically and emotionally, was the autopsy. The force of the impact meant Major Groves and his colleagues were working with fragments. “They didn’t find every part of every person. At times, we were working with a single tooth attached to a bit of bone.”

In forensic dentistry, it’s the details that count. “Whether it’s the tilt of a tooth root, the length of a root or the grid pattern of a bone, every detail is important. Sometimes, using dental records we could be sure. When we weren’t sure, we shared what we had and let the others narrow the focus. It’s better to say you don’t know than to guess wrong. It’s absolutely essential that you don’t misidentify anyone,” Major Groves says.

After taking x-rays and charting dental remains, he and his colleagues would compare the results with existing dental records. “One of the most frustrating things was that we didn’t have dental records for everybody. By the time we closed down, we were only able to identify about half of the victims using dental records.”

In lieu of dental evidence, the RCMP contacted next of kin and police in 12 different countries to collect fingerprints and DNA samples from victims’ homes. By December, all of the victims had been identified—approximately 90 through dental records, another 30 through fingerprints and x-rays, and more than 100 through DNA analysis. The analysis remains one of the largest DNA identification projects ever undertaken in Canada.

In 1998, Major Groves was one of the junior forensic dentists on the team; today, he is one of the most senior. Currently the staff officer responsible for dental policy at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, he also holds the position of CFDS forensic odontologist.

In 2010, he organized the CFDS component of the DVI team that travelled to Haiti to identify Canadian victims of the earthquake. It was only the second time a CFDS DVI team had been pulled together. As in the Swissair flight 111 disaster, the efforts of Canadian Forces forensic dentists helped bring closure and a sense of peace to the families of victims.

The CFDS has approximately 25 personnel trained in DVI, either through the US program or the British Columbia Forensic Odontology Response Team in Vancouver.