Forensic odontology was dealt yet another opportunity to help families who’ve lost a loved one bring closure yesterday in West, Texas. When I first caught the name of the town where the explosion occurred, I thought it was a misprint. What city in the west part of Texas? The West Fertilizer Company had been a wonderful employment provider for many of the surrounding Texas counties for years.
The enormity of the explosion went largely unnoticed by the viewers in America. These networks were already busing covering a tragedy that seemed to rock an American tradition, the Boston Marathon. Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show even flew to the scene of the Texas explosion, only to scarcely get any air coverage of this tragic explosion. But the toll on human life and injury in Texas far exceeded the tragedy in Boston.
The Texas tragedy will give the science of forensic odontology another chance to be of value in the solving of a forensic puzzle. In an explosion like this with double digit fatalities, most or all of the victims will probably require dental identification. Even if fire did not totally consume the body, there would be massive amounts of instant destruction. Very similar to those in the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center who were at work on the floor that took the plane’s direct initial impact: total vaporization. Gone. Nothing. Zero. Those individuals in the direct line of impact never knew what hit them. One minute they are checking their email, drinking their first cup of coffee, when all of a sudden, their bodies simply cease to exists.
Thoughts like this go through your mind frequently when you have dental identifications to do, when the death is caused by a sudden incident. This person was eating breakfast this morning at about the same time I did. Before the murder. Or car wreck. Or IED. Or a fertilizer plant blows up and some were probably vaporized. Dental records of those individuals will not be needed, for there is truly nothing left to compare. The trouble is that you don’t know which ones those are, so each piece of evidence must be studied carefully.
Many of the Texas victims were probably burned beyond recognition. Often times it is difficult to tell male from female because the burning is so intense. But sometimes cases require dental ID when no fire got anywhere near the body. When many bodies are subject to sudden force and trauma, as their bodies are ripped apart, the body parts begin to get comingled. Cases like this were an every day event at Ground Zero back in 2001. This will often manifest itself by finding two right hands, or two lower jaws.Or frequently the body is decapitated. DNA will be used on many of these types of body parts, but this type testing is time consuming and quite expensive.