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Kathy Reichs explains: How fire victims are identified

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There are at least four people dead after the major fire in Old Montreal, and others remain unaccounted for. The search and identification process is slow and painstaking.

Kathy Reichs is a forensic anthropologist and author of the Temperance Brennan crime series, which inspired the TV series Bones.

Reichs spoke with CTV News anchor Mutsumi Takahashi about what scientists are up against in a case like the one in Old Montreal.

Watch the video above for the full interview with Kathy Reichs. Below is a Q & A.

Mutsumi Takahashi: In cases like this, when the building's interior collapsed, and the fire was that intense, what's required to find the body?

Kathy Reichs: Well, one of the biggest issues, as they are fully aware, and everything I read, is structural integrity of the building. Because what happens often -- and I assume that's true in this case, -- is that everything collapses down. It just accordions down towards the first floor. You've got stone walls, with probably wooden floors, which burned. So you've got layers going on in there, and your bodies may be at the lowest level of that debris. But you don't necessarily know that.

They've got the plans for the building, because they've got information of who was supposed to have been where. And that's very helpful. Then it's just a matter of working through that debris, finding out what you've got. Between the intense heat and the pressure of the collapse, you know, this is not conducive to good preservation.

Mutsumi Takahashi: Once a body is brought to your lab, what are the steps that you go through?

Kathy Reichs: If an unidentified body is brought to my lab, and that would be the case here because they're probably not visually identifiable, I would, as an anthropologist -- the pathologist would be in charge, and he would call in an anthropologist as needed in a specialty situation such as fire deaths. I would help establish ID. Traditionally, you would look at the bones to get the age, the sex, the race, the height -- any particular things you can derive from the skeleton. Today, hopefully, and I know they've asked families for DNA samples, hopefully, they'll be able to get DNA from [the skeleton]. And today, we've come a long way from where it used to be in the past. So you can now recover DNA from fairly badly burned bones. So that's what they'll be working on as well. But traditionally, that's what I would have done with the bones is construct what I call a biological profile.

Mutsumi Takahashi: What kinds of things would have been done before DNA was possible?

Kathy Reichs: Well, dental records, of course, and I'm sure they'll be using dental records in this situation as well, assuming that people have a dental history.

With badly burned materials, if you've got no soft tissue that's useful for a traditional autopsy, then you would go to the anthropologist and you would look at the skeleton. I don't know what they have, or what they'll be able to recover in this situation. But hopefully, they could get fingerprints. If you've got a digit that has somehow been protected, preserved in some way, you can get fingerprints. It'll depend on what they're able to recover.

Mutsumi Takahashi: And does it matter if the body might have come from a possible crime scene or not?

Kathy Reichs: Well, you always want to be exceedingly careful in everything you do and approach it scientifically and objectively. I suspect that in a crime scene situation, you're going to be doubly careful, because there's always that consideration down the road that anything you deal with, any potential evidence, could end up in litigation, in court. So you have to be especially sure of chain of custody, for example, of anything that's collected in a crime scene situation.

Mutsumi Takahashi: And what are your thoughts when you're doing this kind of work? Is it always the victims foremost in your mind?

Kathy Reichs: Yes, I remember once when I was digging a mass grave in Guatemala with a gentleman named Clyde Snow, who is one of the founding fathers of forensic anthropology and human rights work. Someone asked him that: How do you keep your emotions in check while you're digging a mass grave? At that time, we were exhuming 23 people, women and children, and Clyde said, 'You know, if you want to cry, you have to cry later at home in bed. But when you're at the scene, you are completely focused. You are completely objective.' And you just think about getting your job done and giving those remains recovered and hopefully back to their families.

Mutsumi Takahashi: And what can you say to the friends and families who are waiting for information on their loved ones?

Kathy Reichs: I know it's unbelievably hard, but be patient. The job has to be done properly in order for all of the recovery to take place properly and the identifications to take place properly. So just -- it's hard, it's heartbreaking, but be patient. Those working are doing the best they can. 

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