Wednesday 24 October 2018

The forensics expert who offered to help ID tsunami victims - a decision which almost cost him his life

A relative of tsunami victims marks the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami at Peraliya in Hikkaduwa
A relative of tsunami victims marks the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami at Peraliya in Hikkaduwa

Tom Wilkinson

Forensic expert David Collins bravely offered his skills to help identify tsunami victims in Sri Lanka and the decision almost cost him his life.

He was at home with his family on Boxing Day 2004 when he saw TV coverage of the disaster and flew out five weeks later when bosses at the National Police Improvement Agency asked for volunteers.

His role was body recovery and identification and he set up a mortuary, exhumed bodies and helped to identify westerners from their DNA or fingerprints.

In sweltering heat, he worked 16 hour days and what was supposed to be a two-week trip lasted two months during which he worked on identifying as many as 300 bodies.

With colleagues, he worked his way through containers full of bodies, becoming obsessed with the task of bringing closure to grieving relatives desperate for news about missing loved-ones.

The work involved travelling around the devastated country, recovering bodies which may have been buried to preserve them, then bringing them back to the capital and sending them on to the right embassy when their identity was discovered.

The smell of death, which he experienced passing through stricken villages, has remained with him to this day. Without a proper debrief on his return, his life spiralled out of control to the point where he attempted suicide.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his employers - now replaced by the College of Policing - settled out of court, paying him more than £400,000 after he was deemed unfit to work.

The married 46-year-old father-of-two from Consett, County Durham, was not prepared for the mayhem he faced when he flew out from Heathrow.

"I didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was when I turned up there, with all the devastation, the heat and the smell," he said.

"It was very hot at that time of year, we were in white Jeeps going from one area to another and you could smell the decaying bodies as we went through the villages and I think that smell sticks with you for ever.

"We would come across villages and people were living in blue UN tents and they would come and greet you, almost as if we were there to save them but my role was not to do that.

"They thought we were there to help them but we were recording the deceased, so it was quite heart-wrenching to drive away from them."

Mr Collins, who had 12 years experience investigating crime scenes with Durham Police before becoming a trainer, said the role was to identify foreigners, not locals, as the Sri Lankan government decided unidentified nationals should be buried in mass graves.

"There was not the infrastructure to identify Sri Lankans from their DNA or fingerprints. It sounds quite coarse, it was a production line of bodies we were working in," he said.

Clothing would be recorded, teeth photographed and DNA would be retrieved and sent away for analysis which could be compared to a missing person's samples, perhaps left on a toothbrush, a comb or linked to a surviving relative.

There was great satisfaction in successfully identifying a tsunami victim so their loved-ones could hold a proper funeral, he said.

"When you are working in that kind of role, it becomes obsessive if you have three containers full of bodies and there are people grieving.

"You will do everything within your means professionally to identify those people."

That was the driver for the 16-hour shifts and for only taking three days off in six weeks.

But the workload was to take its toll, and his return to the UK and life as a trainer went badly.

Mr Collins developed PTSD without realising, disengaged from his family and became depressed, suffering from guilt and flashbacks.

He has since sought help from a therapist and has begun rebuilding his life.

Previously, he used to wish he had never got involved with the disaster relief effort, but that has now changed.

"I am obviously very proud of what I did, it did cost me a lot," he said. "There are people worse off than me, they have lost loved ones and I appreciate that.

"If someone said 'would you go and do it again', I used to say no.

"I would probably say yes, but I wouldn't be as naive about what it was like to work on a disaster and how you must take care of yourself, or people must take care of you when you come back, so you don't end up with a mental illness."

Press Association

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