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When Disaster Strikes, Dentists Are Ready to Serve

Science: At crash sites and at other scenes of tragedy, forensic odontologists try to match tiny teeth fragments with X-rays to identify victims and, perhaps, bring a bit of closure to family and friends.

June 27, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Dr. Richard Souviron heard that ValuJet's Flight 592 had just crashed in the Everglades, the Coral Gables, Fla., dentist knew his schedule was about to become frantic.

Two days after the May 11 crash, the first remains of the 110 victims were retrieved and Souviron's team of 26 began its painstaking work--comparing tiny tooth parts and fillings to dental records they had obtained after hasty calls to passengers' dentists.

To date, four victims have been positively identified on the basis of dental characteristics. Two were simple cases of matching fillings with prior X-rays. A child was identified by comparing tooth growth and development with prior X-rays. A fourth was trickier, since the extent of the remains was the crowned part of a tooth and only one root.

Still, the team managed to make a match--and plans to press on until as many victims as possible are identified.

Souviron is a forensic odontologist--one of a select cadre of dentists who use their knowledge about teeth and bite marks to identify victims of mass disasters and abuse and to find criminals.

New computer programs and DNA-analysis techniques are adding scientific credibility to a field traditionally considered subjective. So, too, are professional conferences such as the second national symposium on "Dentistry's Role and Responsibility in Mass Disaster Identification," opening Friday at the American Dental Assn. in Chicago.

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Many dentists attending the symposium work full time in private practices, turning to forensics only when mass disaster or mayhem strikes. It's far from a get-rich-quick sideline; many work pro bono or receive only expenses to cover their office overhead.

Dr. Bryan Chrz, who will be a speaker at the ADA conference, logged 15-hour days for nearly three weeks last year as a member of the dental forensic team helping to identify the 168 victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At workday's end, he drove from the medical examiner's office to his home in nearby Perry so he could be with his then-pregnant wife. Even during his one-hour commute, there was no respite, since news of the bombing filled the airwaves. "You could never escape the situation," he says.

Souviron can relate. As of last week, he and his team had logged more than 370 hours and he's continued to see patients at his Coral Gables office. So far, about 78 dental records of ValuJet passengers have been obtained, Souviron says, and team members often talk directly with the dentists, hoping to gather any additional shred of information that could point to a positive identification. Twelve dental samples have been retrieved from the crash site.

Even so, he predicts that the dental role in identification of ValuJet passengers will be very small because of the location of the crash site.

"It's much harder to get dental remains [in this crash]. It's marsh, it's swamp. Someone described it like quicksand," says Souviron, chief forensic odontologist for the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office who served as an expert witness at the trial of serial killer Ted Bundy, executed in 1989.

The type of crash also dictates the role forensic dentistry plays in identification. When bodies are not badly fragmented, much more can be accomplished.

When Dr. Gerald Vale, chief forensic dental consultant for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, began working in the field more than three decades ago, the pioneer recalls knowing of only about eight colleagues in the field. Now, 372 odontologists are members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, a Colorado Springs-based organization that also includes toxicologists, pathologists and other forensics professionals.

About 90 of those 372 are certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontologists, says president Ann Norrlander, a Minneapolis general dentist. Certification is based on the candidate's personal and professional record of education, training, experiences and achievements along with the results on a formal exam.

Over the years, guidelines have evolved, says Dr. L. Thomas Johnson, dental consultant to the Milwaukee County medical examiner and the Wisconsin Department of Justice crime lab. There are now set procedures on how to put together a dental forensics disaster team, says Johnson, who organized the ADA conference. There are also extensive guidelines, developed by Vale and others, on how to evaluate bite marks, which can make or break a murder case.

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Teeth are ideal for identification because they are a rugged body part, says Dr. James McGivney, forensic odontologist at St. Louis University Center for Advanced Dental Education and another symposium speaker. "Fire will eventually burn teeth, but it takes a good hot fire a long time."

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