Process slow to ID Joplin tornado victims

John Ford

It may be awhile before the identities of those who died in Sunday’s tornado in Joplin are made public.

Mark Bridges, Newton County coroner, is one of several area coroners who have been working at the scene picking up the dead. Even when family members identify a body as a loved one, mistakes can be made.

“One of the coroners let a funeral home have a guy who the mother, the brother and the dad had all identified,” Bridges said. “The body was released to a funeral home in Kansas, who later called me. They said ‘Mark, we’ve got a real problem here. The family is saying this is not their son or brother.’”

Bridges said he picked up another man who was found lying on a concrete slab at 23rd and Iowa. The home there had been demolished and the man did not have any identification on his person.

“My question was, is he the occupant or has the occupant been blown away with the rest of the house, and the guy on the slab is from another house?” Bridges said.

Because of issues like these, all 125 bodies recovered so far have been claimed “unidentified” by the federal government, even if people had identification on them at the time of their demise.

An identification group has been established where people who believe a loved one was killed in the tornado can bring in dental records, DNA from that person such as contained in a hairbrush, or pictures. Once an identification is made, chaplains will be called in to notify families.

Bridges said once data is collected, the group can identify up to 40 bodies a day. During Hurricane Katrina, he said, the group identified up to 90 bodies a day.

Bridges said it is not known how many of those who died were from Newton or McDonald counties, if any were, as that information hasn’t been disseminated. However, he did say he had three deaths in his jurisdiction of Newton County, two who died at Granby House after being transferred from Meadows Care in Joplin and a 54-year-old woman who died at Joplin’s Freeman West Hospital upon hearing her father had been killed in the tornado.

“Of the people in the morgue killed as a result of the tornado, there were few, if any, Newton County residents,” Bridges said.

Bridges said while working a disaster of this magnitude, he and other coroners hit upon an idea: Plot the locations of bodies on a GPS along with pictures to speed identification.

“We can ID close to immediately then,” he said.