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Fingerprints, Videos Enable Authorities to Identify Victims

By Karl Vick
The Washington Post
OKLAHOMA CITY

About half of the corpses pulled from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building here have been identified by their fingerprints, the other half by their dental records. But baby teeth are not marked on a chart, and so since April 19 investigators have been going to the homes of the small children listed among the dead and missing and lifting fingerprints from favorite toys.

"There was one of those big inflatable beach balls that he had in his bedroom that he liked to chase up and down the hall," recalled Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation specialist Bruce R. Spence, of the smooth, reflective surface that yielded the latent prints confirming the identity of an 18-month-old boy killed in the debris of the America's Kids child care center.

At another home Spence lifted a vivid set of a child's prints from the laminated cardboard sleeve of a Lion King video. "It's real smooth, shiny," he said. "Nobody touched it. That was his tape and the rest of the family just better not touch it."

Searchers sifting through the rubble Thursday recovered 11 more bodies, bringing the death count to 155 - 16 of them children - with 13 people still categorized as missing. Officials said the crews, who earlier this week suspended 24-hour operations, would work through the night to finish.

Most of the remaining bodies are believed to be in the first floor Social Security office, now pancaked into the basement, although the total includes three infants last seen in the day care center above it. All but the most recently recovered of the dead have been identified.

Work proceeded "amazingly quickly" in the area Thursday, a fire department spokesman said. In the morning officials said any bodies under rubble thought by engineers to be holding up the building could not be recovered. By afternoon, however, family members were being told the building was safer than previously thought.

The recovery procedure works like this: A hydraulic claw lifts concrete from the interior where human rescuers do not go for safety reasons. When lookouts stationed on the upper floors spot a body, rescue crews make their way in, lift the remains into a body bag and carry it to the nearby temporary morgue.

The body is then driven the two miles to the office of the state's chief medical examiner, where in almost every case final identification has been made in a matter of hours.

The process, like the visits to the children's bedrooms, combines forensic science with the most poignant details of everyday life with an intensity that tests the decorum of the men and women who deal with death as a profession. Ron Young has been visiting homicide scenes for 16 years as a lead criminalist for the state bureau. He does not recall hugging anyone at one until the assignment that had him lifting a fingerprint from a Barney the Dinosaur book.

The parting he has settled on - "We'll do everything we can to help bring this to a close" - rings true to everyone involved. No one is more anxious for final word than the last two dozen families. Family members greet the fingerprint expert at their door with the same blend of apprehension and appreciation with which they answered earlier requests for photographs, medical records and for descriptions of what the missing person was wearing when she or he left the house 17 mornings ago.

"In all honesty, in spite of the tragedy that was involved, this was one of the most heartwarming and enriching experiences that I have had," said John Long, on the steps of the Oklahoma City church where he had waited, with hundreds of other relatives, every day since the explosion. "Everyone that showed up here treated us with dignity and compassion and love."

His mother, Rheta Long, 60, was a secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She had been on the fifth floor office facing the blast at 9:02, and her body was identified on Sunday. By then Long had been coming to the First Christian Church for 11 days, facing the uncertain with an equinamity he said he learned from his six-year-old son Thomas, who died of cancer in December. "My son taught me that," Long said. "My son taught me about life and death."

At First Christian Church, a volunteer wears a teddy bear clipped onto one hip and a pager onto the other. If, when word arrives from the medical examiner's office, the counselors do not find the survivor among the 200 or so people still keeping vigil, someone phones the home and asks that they come in.

The official process of identification proceeds from clothing, to the contents of their pockets, to personal touches such as a ring and the inscription inside it, which the radiologists can read by x-ray.

Photos often help, particularly a family snapshot that shows complexion candidly, rather than a professional's airbrushed portrait. The conclusive ID comes by fingerprint or medical record not only to spare loved ones the trauma of a required viewing, but because, especially after a disaster, visual identification is considered among the least reliable.