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Only 8 ValuJet victims have been identified so far Tatoos, teeth, clothes give clues from body fragments

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- Calling it "the most difficult task we've had to deal with in modern times," Dade County's medical examiner announced yesterday that coroners have identified the remains of eight people killed in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592.

The clues: tattoos, teeth, fingerprints, tell-tale scars, scraps of 22 clothing -- all on mere fragments of human bodies. All eight victims were adults; the remains of some children are being examined.

"I'm very hopeful that we'll have more identities forthcoming," said Dr. Roger Mittleman, Dade's medical examiner. "This will be very helpful for families adjusting to this powerful tragedy."

For those families, the news will not be heralded by the shrill ring of a telephone. It will come with a knock on the front door, with a human touch of consolation.

Because of the trauma of this particular disaster -- bodies shattered beyond recognition and requiring weeks to identify -- confirmation of each victim's death is being delivered across the nation by uniformed police officers accompanied by Red Cross mental health counselors.

The procedure, similar to one employed by the Pentagon for military personnel killed in the line of duty, is believed to be unprecedented in the aftermath of a civilian accident.

"While people often know that their loved ones are very likely dead, it is very difficult to receive additional information from the medical examiner's office," said Jerry Jacobs, a Red Cross mental health expert.

"It often brings a sense of finality that is very difficult to deal with, so we try to be certain there is someone there to help them deal with that issue."

Nearly two weeks after the DC-9 crashed into the Everglades, killing all 110 people on board, only 20 percent of the expected remains have been found, Mittleman said. He said additional remains are recovered every day, but the pace is slowing.

At the Northwest Dade crash scene, the shoulder-to-shoulder searches were ended, but more heavy equipment rolled in to help remove any large pieces of debris that might be found.

A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is coordinating the investigation, said about 200 pieces of the jetliner were recovered Thursday and others were found yesterday. Still, less than 30 percent of the plane has been recovered, he said.

In summary, Mittleman said the task facing his coroners remained extremely difficult. Help has been sought from the FBI and from family members, who were asked to fill out questionnaires that asked about the victims' distinguishing marks.

"The force of the impact was quite severe," he said, "and tissue has been very dramatically fragmented, such that we have small portions of human remains."

Mittleman said identified remains will be delivered to family members for burial or other memorial services. "Our mission is to provide remains of the deceased to the families," he said.

Pub Date: 5/25/96

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