Identifying the Dead: the Electronic Toe Tag

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A terrible, crude transformation came over many of the dead in the aftermath of Katrina. In the wake of the storm, mangled unidentified bodies putrefied in the open, even as corpses torn from cemeteries and graves lay exposed and unknown. Gary Hargrove, coroner of Harrison County, Mississippi, advises relatives not to look at the remains. "They want to see their loved ones," he says. "I understand that. But I explain the condition. We're looking at people who have been exposed to horrific conditions due to the storm, unlike those who have died from natural conditions at home."

Now, survivors can turn their trust to a bit of high technology that has come to the grim task of gathering and cataloging the dead--allowing relatives, if they choose, to accept identification by way of a number and an accompanying computer file, bypassing the trauma of trying to make out the features of their ill-fated kin. Last week, Hargrove and other coroners in the stricken area began attaching microchips into corpses. Once a body is brought back to the makeshift morgue at the airport in Gulfport, Mississippi, a forensic pathologist assigns a chip to it. Says Hargrove, "It can be injected, put on clothing, in the body bag. It's left up to the pathologist, depending on the condition of the individual." He adds, 'it's an advanced form of the toe tag."

The microchip is the size of a grain of rice and contains a 16-digit identification number to help with computerized record keeping. The identification number corresponds to a comprehensive computerized file on the individual. As more information accumulates toward identifying the corpse, all a coroner has to do is use a scanner to read the ID number and make sure the information tracks and that the data is filed correctly. It helps avoid confusion in the multi-step processs of positive identification, which requires the input of, among others, a pathologist, an X-ray expert, an odontologist--who checks dental remains--and, finally, the coroner, who signs off on the process. "So far, it's helped us track each individual," Hargrove says. "What we don't want to do is lose anyone or any remains. We want to return the remains to the family so they can get on with their lives."

According to Hargrove, the chips have helped keep track of most of the 87 bodies recovered in Harrison County and 49 in nearby Hancock County. Of those 136 bodies, 44 remain to be identified. Manufactured by VeriChip of DelRay Beach, Fla., the chips were sent to Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita making landfall.