“The more time passes, the more it gets complicated”: in Nice, scientists from the national gendarmerie are working to identify the victims of the October 2 floods, but the scale of the disaster and the destruction of two cemeteries make the task particularly difficult .
Tuesday, the provisional toll was still seven bodies found, including five attributed with certainty to bad weather, and nine missing. The excavations were to continue with the reinforcement of dog handlers specializing in the search for corpses and the support of sonar to help firefighters probe the bottom of the rivers that had suddenly overflowed.
“It’s a bit of a race against time and it’s important to have the bodies as quickly as possible”, explains Colonel Nicolas Thiburce, head of division at the Criminal Research Institute of the National Gendarmerie (IRCGN) , who came to reinforce the Paris region with around fifteen colleagues.
No one knows when the mission of these expert gendarmes, geneticists, doctors, dentists, etc., will end. “We will stay as long as necessary,” he said.
The only certainty is that we must speed up while sparing the families of the missing, whose collaboration is required to obtain DNA elements or secondary information. Did he or she have a prosthesis? A tattoo? An alliance? What clothes? Who was his dentist?
Behind him, a soldier, in overshoes and white coveralls hiding his uniform, emerges from the mobile laboratory of the Institute, parked since Friday with a whole battery of computers in the Ausseur barracks in Nice.
“Sad chance” notes Mr. Thiburce, this laboratory, used for the first time for the identification of the 86 victims of the attack of July 14, 2016 on the Promenade des Anglais, is back with a brand new computer equipment that it is still showing in Nice.
– “Long-term mission” –
The truck saves time and efficiency, without having to send the samples to Paris. Outside the vehicle, the bags and tubes of biological samples are scanned and recorded in a database, then sampled and analyzed inside, protected from contamination.
“We put that on a device that extracts DNA and amplifies the signal to obtain the DNA profile of the person,” explains Mr. Thiburce.
Several times a day, results come out and are compared to DNA collected from objects that have belonged to missing persons, toothbrush, hairbrush, etc., or compared to DNA taken from relatives, parents or children.
“Water is not our ally (…), bodies change more quickly”, underlines Mr. Thiburce.
Over the days, the risk is to have tissues that are too poor in DNA, thus forcing a laborious work of removing bone or teeth. Grate, grind, dilute, everything takes longer.
The victims were scattered over more than 10,000 km2, dragged with road or residential debris, branches and rock by torrents of muddy water, sometimes for tens of kilometers, and some bodies have already been found. in a state modestly described as “polyfragmented”.
To add to the macabre and complicate the investigation, already difficult in the absence of an exhaustive list of victims – as there can be in an air accident – bodies foreign to the disaster were dispersed as far as Italy, from two cemeteries washed away by the floods: one, in the high country of Nice at Saint-Martin-Vésubie, and the other near Tende in Roya, the Franco-Italian valley which rises above Chin.
“We have missing persons and we have two cemeteries carried away with more than 300 bodies or parts of bodies taken”, specifies Colonel Nasser Boualam, commander of the gendarmerie group of the Alpes-Maritimes.
“We are on a long-term mission,” he said, stressing that the anticipation of the State made it possible to avoid the worst. All the students had been sent home in anticipation of the storm. Without that, he says, “we would have ended up with a much heavier balance sheet, and especially children”.