AirAsia Flight QZ8501: Team's grim task

AirAsia Flight QZ8501: Team's grim task
Dr Anton is executive director of the Disaster Victim Identification unit.

SURABAYA - Dr Anton Castilani, a leading member of the team of 260 forensic experts tasked with identifying bodies from Flight QZ8501, remembers the moment on that Dec 28 morning when he found out that the plane had gone missing.

He was having a dip with his young children at a beach on Bangka island in Sumatra, where he was on a family holiday, when "I heard a man beside me talking about the accident", he said.

"A plane was missing somewhere between Kalimantan and Belitung island. There would have been a lot of people inside, I thought. I just jumped out of the sea to get my cellphone. I had a lot of missed calls and messages."

The 55-year-old police colonel is the executive director of Indonesia's Disaster Victim Identification unit, and has been involved in the aftermath of several tragedies, including the Bali bombings.

Right after finding out about QZ8501, he cut short his holiday and flew to Pangkalan Bun, where bodies recovered from the sea are being sent to first. There were 162 people on board. He helped set up an operation to place the bodies in cold storage, and then into coffins to be flown on military aircraft to Surabaya, where they are taken to the Bhayangkara police hospital to be identified. Dr Anton arrived in Surabaya last Sunday to assist in the grim task at the hospital.

Up till yesterday, a total of 48 bodies have been recovered from the Java Sea and taken to the hospital, with 29 of them having been returned to their families.

Speaking to The Sunday Times at the hospital, Dr Anton, who has a diploma in forensic medicine, did not want to go into details on the state of the bodies. "The decomposition process... with sea water... sometimes you will also get victims with fragmented bodies," he said.

And that is why the experts are relying on DNA samples taken from the bodies, which will then be compared to those taken from family members. Among the bodies released yesterday was that of nine-year-old Justin Giovanni. His brother was Nico Giovanni, 18, a student at St Andrew's Junior College in Singapore. Their parents were also on the plane. Nico's and his mother's bodies were identified last week. All three will be buried today. Nico's father Herumanto Tanus is still missing.

The only remaining member of their family still alive is Chiara Natasha, 15, who was waiting in Singapore for her family when QZ8501 went missing. The Methodist Girls' School student is currently in Surabaya. Her plight has touched Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini. "I have requested that she return to school as she is a scholarship recipient," the mayor said.

"I have written a personal letter to the boarding school and the school to say that I will look after her. And if there are any issues whatsoever, to call or to e-mail me."

This article was first published on Jan 11, 2015.
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