Pathologists battle with identifying George bodies

Rescue operations continued at the collapsed George building where the death toll increased to 30 on Monday. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

Rescue operations continued at the collapsed George building where the death toll increased to 30 on Monday. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

Published May 14, 2024


Efforts to identify the bodies found among the rubble and concrete of the collapsed George building are being complicated by their decomposing state a week after tragedy struck.

When the incident occurred on May 6, a total of 81 people were estimated to be on site, with 59 individuals rescued and recovered, including 30 deceased; 13 are currently in hospital, while 22 remain unaccounted for.

The Garden Route District Joint Operation Centre (JOC) and George Municipality said: “The primary focus continues to be on rescue efforts. With this in mind, we are also proactively setting up plans to expedite the identification of the deceased. This is done by Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) and SAPS. We, therefore, endeavour to fasttrack the process to help bring closure to families.”

Speaking to the media, Floyd Herwels, assistant director at George Forensic Pathology Services, said: “The first bodies that were recovered were okay.

Some of them were visually identifiable ... their injuries were of such a nature that you could still identify them. But now, a couple of days in, the bodies are now in a state of decomposition, so that makes the identification process a little bit more tricky. It also means now that we won’t be able to (do) visual identification but we will now go over to scientific methods such as fingerprints and DNA matching.”

The JOC said they were also experiencing difficulties in obtaining accurate names of missing individuals or deceased due to the building collapse.

“We urgently request families who have lost contact with their loved ones to come to the George Civic Centre on York Street. This will enable the Department of Social Development to collect detailed and precise information, ensuring that all records are accurately documented. The JOC’s adherence to a stringent double verification protocol is crucial for maintaining the integrity and accuracy of reported numbers of the deceased, which is essential in emergency and disaster response scenarios. This verification process involves cross-referencing information from multiple reliable sources, such as recovery teams, hospitals, and forensic services.”

Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Sihle Zikalala and Infrastructure MEC Tertuis Simmers visited the site on Monday.

Simmers said the Western Cape government has launched an independent investigation into the collapse. During a briefing in George last week, Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi also confirmed that his department would conduct its independent investigations after police had done their investigation. Police Minister Bheki Cele asked that they be given space to conduct their investigation during a visit at the weekend.

Zikalala said there were preliminary prima facie issues that warranted further examination regarding this disaster and the police still categorised the site as a crime scene.

He said the investigation led by the Department of Labour will be supported by their multidisciplinary teams consisting of structural engineers, forensic experts, geotechnical specialists, and materials scientists.

“To ensure authenticity of documents produced for purposes of investigation, an IT expert is also recommended. The process will involve meticulous site inspections, structural analysis, and evidence collection to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the collapse.

At this stage, we can confirm that the registration of a town planner, who acted on behalf of the landowners, is registered with the South African Council for Planners (SACPLAN) and he is in good standing. A detailed investigation will have to be undertaken as part of determining town planning compliance and processes.”

Meanwhile, the Black Business Council in the Built Environment (BBCBE) said: “In terms of the construction industry protocols, the project owner or the client should meet with the professional team to conceptualise the infrastructure project. This will lead to the production of construction drawings which will be routed to the local municipality for inputs and approval of those drawings. In the case of residential building projects, the National Home Builder Registration Council will then enrol the project, which has to comply with a specific criterion.

Rescue operations continued at the collapsed George building where the death toll increased to 30 on Monday. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/Independent Newspapers

“Before construction commences, a permit or licence must be acquired from the Department of Employment and Labour. It therefore means that several industry public entities were involved from the initial stages of the construction of the five-storey building by the contractor or the developer.”

Cape Times