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The collapse of an Italian cemetery into the sea: Forensic approach to human remains identification

Published:September 29, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsigss.2022.09.038

      Abstract

      On February 22nd, 2021, a landslide on the Italian coast caused the collapse of an old cemetery. About 370 coffins tumbled and more than 200 fell into the sea. 333 groups of unidentified human remains were found: 140 decomposed bodies and 193 bags of commingled skeletal remains. The Medical Staff of Legal and Forensic Medicine was involved for analyzing the remains in order to identify and bury them. The remains involved belonged to people who died between the end of the XIX century and 2017; all were interesting by advanced transformative phenomena. For the identifications, new forms, based on the Interpol DVI ones, were created. Information was collected by relatives through a specific antemortem form. Relatives’ information and post-mortem data were compared: 19 body were identified thanks to secondary methods (like object in the bury, dresses, medical devices). 147 bone samples (long bones and teeth) were collected for the genetic analysis. Among the 77 relatives eligible for a genetic comparison, 66 gave consent to DNA swab for collection and genetic typing. Currently, after 48 samples DNA analysis (STRs and Y-polymorphism) 12 remains were identified, 21 presented a profile suitable for comparison but without attribution, and 7 did not return a comparable profile caused by stochastic effects. 31 subjects have been identified and the genetics analysis are still in progress. The Cemetery collapse shows that every disaster requires a tailored approach.

      Keywords

      On February 22nd, 2021, a landslide on the Italian coast caused the collapse of an old cemetery. About 370 coffins tumbled and more than 200 fell into the sea.
      The recovering operation were complicated by environmental setting and were carried out by firefighters and scuba divers.
      The intact coffins were immediately identified by the Authorities while 333 groups of unidentified human remains were found: 140 decomposed bodies and 193 bags of commingled skeletal remains.
      The first goal was the environmental preservation and the safety of the cliffs. After two months the Medical Staff of Legal and Forensic Medicine was involved for analyzing the remains in order to identify and bury them.
      The remains involved belonged to people who died between the end of the XIX century and 2017; all were interesting by advanced transformative phenomena. An identification area was set up in the cemetery.
      For the identifications, new forms, based on the Interpol DVI ones, were created [
      • Prinz M.
      • Carracedo A.
      • Mayr W.R.
      • Morling N.
      • Parsons T.J.
      • Sajantila A.
      • Scheithauer R.
      • Schmitter H.
      • Schneider P.M.
      DNA commission of the international society for forensic genetics (ISFG): recommendations regarding the role of forensic genetics for disaster victim identification (DVI).
      ]. A team of forensic examiners photographed the remains, collected DNA sampling according to the minimum number of individuals and to the quality of the tissues and fulfilled a specific anthropometric form. Meanwhile, information was collected from relatives through another specific form: 154 relatives’ forms were collected. Relatives’ information and post-mortem data were compared and 19 body were identified thanks to secondary methods (like object in the bury, dresses, medical devices) (Fig. 1).
      Fig. 1
      Fig. 1a tattoo found in arm of a decomposed body.
      Based on the relatives’ forms, family trees of the missing people were reconstructed. 77 relatives eligible for a genetic comparison were found: in most of the cases, just the relative with the closest degree of kinship to the missing person was called, but, in some specific cases, second and more degree relatives were called in order to collect potentially useful genetic data.
      147 bone samples (long bones and teeth) were collected for the genetic analysis. Among the 77 relatives eligible for a genetic comparison, 66 gave consent to DNA swab for collection and genetic typing.
      The genetic analysis presented many difficulties:
      • 1)
        the uncertainty about the complete list of the remains involved in the collapse and about the number of the subjects missing into the sea or in the landslide;
      • 2)
        commingled remains (of more than four individuals) in a single numbered bag (Fig. 2);
        Fig. 2
        Fig. 2– mixed incomplete remains in a single numbered bag. A lot of bones presented post-mortem lesions.
      • 3)
        Several missing remains involved in the collapse interesting different persons of the same family;
      • 4)
        Variable time of death (many totally skeletonized corpses);
      • 5)
        Many post-mortem lesions detected;
      • 6)
        Partial information given from relatives;
      • 7)
        Stationing of the remains in salt water (further DNA degradation factor).
      Currently, after 48 samples DNA analysis (STRs and Y-polymorphism), 12 remains were identified, 21 presented a profile suitable for comparison but without attribution, and 7 did not return a comparable profile caused by stochastic effects [

      Ge, F.I., Recommendations for personal identification analysis by forensic laboratories. 〈http://www.gefi-isfg.org/temp/2004202091522.pdf〉. Accessed 21 Apr 2021.

      ]. In all cases of identification through genetic data, a comparison between relatives’ information and post-mortem data was also made in order to enhance the results.
      DNA extraction was performed starting from different weight of bone powder (depending on samples size and quality), and purification was performed according to the recommendations of the commercial kit used (QIAamp® DNA Investigator Kit, Quiagen Germany).
      STR typing (according to PowerPlex® Fusion System, Promega USA and PowerPlex® 16 System, Promega USA) and Y-polymorphism (according to PowerPlex® Y23 System, Promega USA) were performed. Samples were subjected to denaturing capillary gel electrophoresis using ABI PRISM 310 Genetic Analyzer (Applied Biosystems USA), and data were analyzed using the GeneMapperID v3.2 software.
      31 subjects have been identified and the genetics analysis are still in progress.
      In conclusion, the cemetery collapse shows that every disaster requires a tailored approach: starting from the mass-disaster forensic guidelines, the working team should create a specific protocol according to the situation.

      References

        • Prinz M.
        • Carracedo A.
        • Mayr W.R.
        • Morling N.
        • Parsons T.J.
        • Sajantila A.
        • Scheithauer R.
        • Schmitter H.
        • Schneider P.M.
        DNA commission of the international society for forensic genetics (ISFG): recommendations regarding the role of forensic genetics for disaster victim identification (DVI).
        Forensic Sci. Int. Genet. 2007; 1 (Epub 2006 Nov 28): 3-12https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsigen.2006.10.003
      1. Ge, F.I., Recommendations for personal identification analysis by forensic laboratories. 〈http://www.gefi-isfg.org/temp/2004202091522.pdf〉. Accessed 21 Apr 2021.