Dentist who identified S'porean victims recalls horror

Dentist who identified S'porean victims recalls horror
Forensic dentist Dr Tan Peng Hui was part of the Singapore team dispatched to Thailand following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami to help identify those who were killed.

Although he was no stranger to dead bodies, forensic dentist Tan Peng Hui admitted to being numb with shock when he entered the makeshift mortuary in Khao Lak in Thailand, days after the 2004 tsunami, which took place on Boxing Day.

"There were countless rows of bloated, decomposing bodies caked with mud, coupled with the humidity."

The holding place for the corpses had been a temple.  

"The sight, smell and sound of death and chaos attacked all my senses. It was traumatising," he said, speaking softly and pausing between words.

Dr Tan, 50, spoke to The New Paper about the five weeks he spent working after the disaster that killed more than 226,000 people in South-east Asia. 

In January 2005, Dr Tan, who was then with the Singapore Armed Forces Medical Corps, was part of the 20-man team that Singapore sent to Thailand to help identify the bodies of the victims.

It was a challenging task. He had to examine each victim's mouth, identify the treatment that had been done, take an X-ray on both sides of the jaw, and extract two teeth as a source of DNA.

Forensic dental records are considered one of the most promising ways to help narrow down the search for an identity because they can be easily cross-referenced against the victim's existing dental records.

Dr Tan said his work lasted from dawn to dusk every day, as about 5,000 bodies had been found in the area.

SMELL

"When we arrived, we were immediately assigned jobs. It was helpful as it gave us little time to sit around and dwell on the sights and smell of death," he said.

He said that it took him and an assigned partner an hour or two to examine each body.

"One of us would make the recordings and the other would check his work. But there were thousands of bodies. We worked non-stop during our eight-hour shifts," he said.

The team from Singapore stayed at a resort about a three-hour drive away.

"We would leave our accommodation before sunrise and get back only after the sun had set. Every night, I would go back to my room and the fatigue would just knock me out," he said.

Although he tried not to let his emotions overwhelm him, he said he was most affected when he worked on the bodies of children. "It reminded me of my three sons, who were still very young then," he said.

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