Media release

Update on the identification of SA citizens in Lagos

24 September 2014

24 September 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen of the media;
Fellow South Africans;
Good afternoon.

Let me start by once again congratulating the South African National Defence Force for the successful evacuation of the injured South African citizens from Lagos back home to South Africa on Monday, 22nd September, 2014. They have indeed made all of us very proud as a nation.

Of the patients admitted to the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, 2 are still in critical care, 2 have been transferred to private facilities at the request of their families and 4 patients have been discharged to the care of their families. On behalf of government and the people of South Africa, we wish the patients who remain in the care of the medical staff at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital a speedy recovery.

A national task team comprising Social Development, SAPS Chaplain Services and the Victim Identification Centre has been visiting families of people presumed to have died at the church. Other teams of social workers are providing psycho-social support to survivors and families of victims at the Steve Biko Hospital, OR Tambo International Airport and the DIRCO call centre.

Government is committed to ensure that the mortal remains of each and every South African citizen who lost their life in Lagos are accurately identified. We want to assure the nation that we shall spare neither strength nor effort in ensuring that the deceased are repatriated back home. We believe the repatriation of the deceased is the crucial first step towards helping the families find closure in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy.

We will make sure that all deceased persons are repatriated and that the correct body is handed over to the right family. It is very important to note that the identification of bodies in a disaster situation is a specialised scientific process which involves painstakingly thorough procedures.

The South African team of experts on the ground in Nigeria is working closely with officials from the Nigerian Federal Government as well as the State of Lagos to ensure that the process is completed as soon as possible.  The South African team is led by Brigadier Leone Ras, an international expert in body identification from the South African Police Service.  She is supported by Professor Gert Saaiman, Chief State Pathologist from South Africa.

This identification process is done through a precise process of elimination and utilises accurate information, as detailed below:

1.   Direct Identification. Where possible the body may be identified by next of kin, if they are present in Lagos. This requires physical identification of the body amongst the others. This is often a very traumatic and painful process. Due to the nature of injuries involved in this incident, only a limited number of the bodies may be identified through this method.

2.   Photo Identification. Photos of a person are used to compare with mainly facial features of the bodies in the mortuary. If a match is found, the identification is then confirmed using fingerprints and other bodily characteristics.

3.   Fingerprint Data Base Comparison. The fingerprints from the deceased are compared with the fingerprint databases from the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Police Service. This is done by fingerprint experts and it takes a considerable amount of time. This is a reliable method that is commonly used in identifying deceased persons. However, in some instances due to the injuries sustained, this method may not be viable.

4.   Dental Record Comparison. If fingerprint database comparison does not succeed in the identification of the deceased, the dental characteristics of the body are compared with dental records of individuals prior to the event. This method is only possible where the dental records can be accessed from the dentist that the deceased person visited.  We, therefore, appeal to the family members of unaccounted South Africans who are presumed to have been at the church to provide Police with information of the dentist or dental clinic their relative had visited over the past 8 years.

5.   DNA Sample. If no identification can be reached with any of the above methods, a DNA sample of the body is compared with a DNA sample collected from a close relative. For this purpose, experts from the SA Police Service are currently visiting families and are collecting DNA samples. This sampling is a simple non-painful process with no risks to the family member. It is important to note that the process takes time. The DNA samples collected from the deceased will be compared with the DNA samples collected from family members.

As we strive to ensure that the body identification is completed as soon as possible, we equally have to make sure that the processes are done in line with Lagos State and Nigerian Federal laws.

Government appeals to the families and the nation to bear with us and allow our team in Nigeria the necessary time to complete the process of identifying the bodies. It is clear from the information above that this is a methodical and time consuming process. While we may not be able to predict the exact timeframes for completion, all possible efforts are being made by all parties involved to keep this period of uncertainty as short as possible.

As soon as the bodies are identified, a team of 70 experts from the South African Military Health Service and the Department of Health is ready to depart to Lagos with specialised equipment to transport the deceased back to South Africa with the required care and respect.

Families with members who are not yet accounted for should please contact our information line: 012 351 1000

The Department of Social Development has activated a call centre for those who require the assistance of a grief counsellor: 0800 428 428

They can alternatively send a “please call me” to: *120*7867#. Professional counsellors will call back and help them deal with the trauma of losing a loved one or not knowing what has happened to them.

Government wishes to thank all people involved in offering support to the affected families and urge that we all continue to hold their hands and comfort them during this difficult period.

Phumla Williams
Cell: 083 501 0139

Issued by: Government Communication and Information System

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