(WBIR - Knoxville) Four days after a missile shot down Malaysia Flight 17 in Ukraine, the remains of some of the 298 victims are headed home.
Ukrainian separatists agreed Monday with Malaysia to let a train with some of the bodies to leave the crash region for Amsterdam where the flight originated. President Obama is accusing the pro-Russian rebels of blocking the investigation by denying experts safe access to the crash scene.
If anyone knows about the science and challenges of recovering and identifying bodies, it is Dr. Bill Bass. The retired founder of the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm" is one of the top forensic anthropologists in the world. Bass said he has paid close attention to the coverage of the crash site.
"I've been keeping up with it every time I turn on the television. Anytime you have an aircraft crash, you're getting into my area," said Bass. "As a forensic anthropologist, my job in a situation like this would be to identify the individuals. From what I've seen, the crash scene and the debris field has already been extremely compromised."
Bass has worked to train FBI disaster response and recovery teams for 17 years. He says the first rule is to secure the scene of a crime or disaster.
"We train investigators to secure the crime scene or debris field. In this case, it was not done. If you want a good example of how not to do a disaster, when you look at the pictures, this is exactly what you see is how not to do this with people going all through the scene. There have been a lot of people going through that area who are not experts and the area is so compromised, it's hard to know what someone has done and if it was the right thing."
Bass said he has noticed photographs of people at the scene holding stacks of identification collected from victims.
"You hate to see people with hands full of passports. Those passports should still be on the bodies so you can identify them later."
Allowing the bodies to remain exposed to the elements for multiple days also complicates efforts to identify victims.
"It is in the summer. It is hot, so the body is beginning to decay very rapidly. I'm glad to see them now putting bodies in refrigerated cars. That will help. You just hope their power supply is good enough to keep it cool. But I seriously doubt the remains were organized the way a trained expert would sort this type of evidence."
Bass said when bodies are torn apart, anthropologists attempt to put them back together like a puzzle. How you mix up a pile of puzzle pieces at the beginning can make the task much more difficult and time-consuming.
"If you have body parts, it is extremely difficult to get them back together. So if you have refrigerated cars, you put all of the torsos in one car and the other body separated into piles in another car. If you have a torso with a right leg missing, you go look through the right legs to find a match. In a situation like this, there are also a lot of females on the flight. In most cases, especially the European women, the female legs will be shaved. So you should have two piles of right legs based on the probable gender and you can examine torsos to determine sex. This is the type of stuff you want to do from the start, not later."
Even if the Malaysia Flight 17 recovery had been handled perfectly, Bass said this would be an extremely challenging case.
"This is a really complicated situation for a number of reasons. For one, the plane was shot down at a high altitude. There's the explosion, the fall, and the hit. In a situation like that, you get the bodies coming apart. You also have a debris field that is several miles long. In some cases I've seen reports where they talk about bodies that were still strapped into their seats, which is good if you're trying to identify someone. I don't know what was done with those bodies."
Bass said DNA tests can be used to identify remains, but results take considerably more time and come at a greater cost than other available methods.
"DNA is something you can do. But it would be very expensive to do and I'm not sure who is paying for this. It would be much better to do this in the human identification realm than DNA," said Bass. "I would doubt, to be honest with you, that they ever make a positive identification of every individual."
Bass says he is hopeful that experts with the FBI will be allowed to enter and examine the scene.
"I hope the FBI is let in because they know what to do and they are trained professionals. I think the situation will get better when that happens," said Bass.