Exclusive: Medical Examiner's Office details painstaking effort to ID Bronx fire victims

TREMONT, Bronx (WABC) -- In an Eyewitness News exclusive, the New York City Medical Examiner's Office detailed the painstaking efforts taken to identify victims from the deadly Bronx fire earlier this month that claimed 17 lives, including eight children.

They worked diligently to inform desperate families of their loved ones' fates, in the hopes that the confirmation of a parent's, sibling's or child's passing can somehow help start the grieving process.

"We got word that this could be really bad," said Shivonne Hutson, Executive Director of Forensic Investigations.

For Hutson, the news was devastating. They deal with death every day, but this would be different.

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The high-rise fire in the Bronx had dozens of victims, many of them in cardiac arrest -- and many of them children.

"People are running, they're running for their lives and trying to get out of this building," Hutson said. "And so no one's running with their identification on them."

At one time or another, literally dozens of staff members were called into the process, from agents in the field to scientists in the lab. The moment it was clear there were multiple fatalities, the clock was ticking.

There would be 17 fatalities, but it would take two days to conclusively identify them.

"Everybody is urgently seeking information," Deputy Director Aden Naka said. "We have a huge call volume. It's just a lot of very understandably distraught people, and they want to know, right now, 'Is my loved one dead or alive?'"

All of the dead were from the same region of West Africa, and many had the same last name. The team used DNA samples, images and descriptions of the victims.

"How tall were they? How much did they weigh?" Naka said. "The medical examiner's examining the bodies. We've got folks in the DNA lab running DNA. The X-ray staff are taking X-rays."

There is no margin for error, because mistakes can leave lifelong scars.

"When a family looks at a photograph of their loved one, that's an incredibly traumatizing process," Naka said. "It's beyond comprehension, how difficult it must be to see a photograph of your deceased child. So we're not going to show them someone that's not their child."

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They are guided by a duty to help others.

"The most challenging is dealing with someone else's pain and helping them through that process," Hutson said. "It's devastating. It's also rewarding for us to know that we're able to help families through this process."

For the forensics team, it's painstaking. And for the families, it's the first step toward healing.

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