U.S. News

California investigators to use war zone DNA analysis technique to identify boat fire victims

(Reuters) - California emergency workers were using a DNA analysis technique primarily employed in war zones and crime scenes to quickly identify the badly-burned remains of 34 people killed when a fast-moving fire trapped them on a scuba diving boat.

A candle in memory of the Conception and all lost sits at a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Recovery crews have found the remains of 20 victims - 11 female and 9 male - and were working to retrieve the bodies of 14 others from the charred, sunken wreckage of the Conception.

A fire broke out on the 75-foot (23 meter) vessel before dawn off Santa Cruz Island on Monday, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Brown said a team from California’s Department of Justice was gathering DNA samples from family members and employing a rapid DNA analysis tool to positively identify the victims.

“There was an extraordinarily hot fire and the bodies do exhibit signs of extreme thermal damage,” Brown said.

The same DNA analysis tool, Brown said, was instrumental in identifying victims in the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in state history that killed at least 85 people about 175 miles (280 km) northeast of San Francisco in 2018.

That tool is primarily employed in war zones to generate results in about two hours. It is effective in identifying DNA from burned remains and bone fragments and has also been used by police to identify sexual assault suspects and by the United Nations in child trafficking cases.

Traditional DNA analysis techniques require samples to be shipped to a laboratory and take weeks to produce a match. In addition, traditional tools tend to fail when extreme heat damages tissue samples.

“This system is capable of doing it much more rapidly, but I can’t give you an exact amount of time. It will be done as rapidly as possible,” Brown said.

Investigators have received more than 100 calls from family and friends who believe their loved ones were on the Conception. They are comparing the information from calls with the vessel’s passenger list since many if not all will need to be identified through DNA analysis, Brown said.

Victims range in age from 17 to 60 and most are from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Grant McCool