Challenges in implementing best practice DVI guidelines in low resource settings: lessons learnt from the Meethotamulla garbage dump mass disaster
The management of mass fatalities following disasters is a complex process which requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders and resources. A garbage dump at Meethotamulla in Sri Lanka suddenly collapsed, resulting in the death of 32 individuals. Efforts to implement best practice guidelines in Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) during this disaster revealed several important aspects that need to be considered by the forensic community. Delays in initiating the legal processes to investigate and manage the incident resulted in public dissatisfaction towards the post-disaster management process. Body recovery by Police and military personnel without the involvement of medical teams had numerous shortcomings including the lack of proper tagging and photography, commingling of body parts, and non-preservation of personal items. Public expectation and demand for early release of the bodies conflicted with the necessity to undergo a stringent DVI process according to best practice guidelines. Many adaptations and alternate strategies were necessary to ensure that DVI could be done scientifically. The use of primary identification markers including odontology and DNA had many limitations including non-availability of antemortem data, resource availability and cost. Identification was established using a combination of secondary identification markers including clothing, jewelry, scars, tattoos, morphological descriptions and circumstantial evidence. In two cases, odontological features further supported positive identification. Samples for DNA were obtained and preserved but were not utilized in establishing the identities. This paper highlights the need for better public awareness and multidisciplinary commitment in managing mass fatalities and also reflects on the challenges of implementing best practice DVI guidelines in low-resource settings with different legal and socio-cultural expectations.
KeywordsDisaster management Victim identification Mass disaster planning and mitigation
The authors would like to thank Dr. Prasadini Senarath for her contribution during the DVI process and Dr. Jayanie Weeratne for providing forensic odontological expertise in the identification of the bodies.
First author: literature review, conceptualization and draft of the manuscript.
Second to sixth authors: review, revision and contribution to final draft.
All the authors actively engaged in the DVI process during the disaster.
The first author accepts full responsibility for this manuscript and the decision to publish.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflicts of interest
All the authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.
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