SICILY—It is a sweltering summer day in July 2016 and Italy’s acclaimed forensic scientist Cristina Cattaneo’s white plastic apron is smeared with the human remains of people she desperately wants to identify. She is standing outside a camouflage army tent that doubles as a makeshift morgue at a military base in Melilli, hidden beyond the industrial ports. The sickly bitter smell of death from decomposed bodies hangs in the air, but she is so accustomed to the stench she doesn’t even wear a mask. She and her team of volunteer forensic scientists and anthropologists are attempting do what has never been done before: create complete genetic profiles for hundreds of dead migrants whose names, ethnicities and ages may never be known.

Cattaneo is deeply troubled by the stark difference between how different categories of dead and missing are treated. If a yacht sinks or a plane goes down, recovery personnel take great pains to find the victims, identify them and return them to their loved ones. Not so with migrants. “It’s crazy,” she says. “In any other disaster the entire forensic world is geared to go to the place—except when it comes to migrants. They are treated as B-series individuals, and that needs to change.”

Few migrants who perish at sea are ever positively identified, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that as many as 20,000 people have died in the last decade making Mediterranean crossings. The corpses are typically photographed with a code that may include their sex, if identifiable, and the date they were brought to shore—that’s it. They are buried in donated cemetery plots in graves marked with their codes. It is nearly impossible for loved ones to find them because the graves are spread across places such as the islands of Sicily, Lampedusa and Malta. The photos are almost always kept by parish priests who mind the anonymous graves. Sometimes, the number of dead are reported to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project, but the nationalities are generally logged as “unknown.” There is no central database that connects the photos and numbers and burial locations. And there is certainly no collection and cataloguing of DNA.

As one of Italy’s foremost forensic pathologists and anthropologists, Cattaneo thinks she can push the extremes of forensics so that all dead bodies are treated with equal dignity. Founder and director of the Labanof forensic pathology laboratory of the University of Milan, she has built a specialized career collecting forensic evidence from decomposed, burned and mutilated remains. The bodies she is working on under the hot Sicilian sun are those of hundreds of refugees and migrants who were escaping war and poverty. They left Libya headed for Europe by way of Italy or Malta. On April 18, 2015, their rickety, vastly overcrowded boat, known as the Peschereccio, a general term meaning fishing boat, sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Of the estimated 800 or more onboard, only 28 men survived, making it the single deadliest migrant maritime disaster ever documented. Just 58 corpses were plucked from the ocean in the immediate aftermathThey were buried in Malta without autopsies or positive identification. The rest went down with the ship.

Cattaneo, to this day, is working hard to develop a database, complete with DNA profiles, for the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers on that ship, whose lives she knows are as important as yacht skippers and airliner passengers. The biggest obstacle she has faced, beyond apathy toward the victims, is the limits of traditional forensic, which are based on a system of either matching viable DNA from the deceased to carefully collected DNA from a living family member or matching dental records. With migrants it is rare that family members are actively searching for their relatives because it has been impossible to even know where the person might be or if he or she might be alive or dead. Cattaneo is determined to change that.

Few migrants who drown at sea are ever positively identified, but forensic scientist Cristina Cattaneo is determined to change that. Working in a makeshift morgue at a military base in Melilli, Sicily, she is pushing forensics to the limit as she analyzes the bloody, decomposed remains of the 700 Peschereccio victims, so that each individual could be found by a loved one. Credit: Salvatore Cavalli AP Photo

Of the more than 10,000 people who are known to have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2015, just over half have even been found, according to the International Organization for MigrationSome of the bodies wash up on Libya’s shores, others get caught in fishermen’s nets. But 700 bodies from the Pescherecciomade it to Cattaneo’s makeshift morgue in Sicily. She is using a range of extreme techniques, including extensive cranial scans to animate the dead and harvesting DNA in unconventional ways. She is also pushing legal limits. Generally, if DNA specimens are too small or damaged, they are not considered legally valid for a positive match; Cattaneo found new ways to collect and record DNA because she had to, given the degree of decomposition on such a mass scale. The anomalies she and her colleagues find are being used as a new study in what amounts to extreme forensics. Cattaneo, an Italian who studied biomedicine at McGill University in Montreal, along with paleontology and funerary archeology at the University of Sheffield in England, says “reams of studies will be written” about the advanced techniques.

She also stresses that new protocols for migrants must be adopted that produce a far more complete picture of the deceased than what is currently required for legal matching purposes. Her team is going well beyond the point at which others might have previously given up. “We have no whole bodies in good condition, and we have no wife with a toothbrush [harboring DNA] waiting at the morgue to find her husband,” she explains. “That means we have to do things differently.” But could her techniques succeed? And even if they do, would any distant relatives actually find their missing loved ones?

Raising the Ship

Trying to identify passengers from the Peschereccio was frustrating from the start, quickly signaling that Cattaneo’s extreme forensics would be needed. One of the survivors was 25-year-old Sekou Diabatefrom the Ivory Coast. He and his brother Karim, and four friends, were like most of the passengers: faced with the choice between a slow death by extreme poverty or uneasy survival by joining a militia or the drug trade, they decided to try to reach Europe for a chance at a better life. None of them were from Libya. Diabate says that when the vessel started taking on water, one of the men navigating the ship called the Italian Coast Guard on a satellite phone.

A short time after, a Portuguese-flagged cargo ship called the King Jacob, dispatched by the Italian command center in Rome, arrived to help, because it was the closest vessel in the area. Diabate says that when the migrants saw the ship approaching, panic set in. Everyone on the top deck rushed to one side of the Peschereccio, making it lean precariously. The two ships collided and the much smaller migrant ship sank. The King Jacob crew shined a spotlight into the dark waters and threw out what spare life jackets they had, but only a few passengers survived. Diabate held on to a dead body and watched people sink around him. “To watch so many people die that way, to drown so close to being free, is like dying myself,” he says. “I’m the only one of my group that survived.” Two of the 28 who lived were part of the smuggling operation; they were eventually convicted of human trafficking.

Then–Prime Minister Matteo Renziof Italy vowed to raise the sunken vessel and give the hundreds who perished “a proper burial.” But just surfacing the ship, much less conducting the necessary forensics, proved difficult. Never before had a migrant ship been recovered from the depths of the sea. In spring 2016 salvage operators with Impresub sent remote-controlled submersible robots down to close off the hatches and openings and recover stray bodies from the seabed, more than 370 meters below the surface. In a painstaking operation that included using precision robot arms guided by sonar through the murky water, another 111 bodies were recovered, bringing the total of dead outside the sunken vessel to 169, including the 58 who had been buried in Malta.

The sunken Peschereccio laid under 370 meters of water for a year before Italian salvage masters could raise it. Once exhumed, workers froze it with liquid nitrogen to preserve the hundreds of dead bodies inside, many locked in lower decks. Credit: Salvatore Cavalli AP Photo

Impresub then lowered a large gurney fixed to an inflatable square structure, which was fastened below the Peschereccio using the robots, to slowly lift the ship. As soon as the vessel broke the surface, technicians used water canons to spray it with liquid nitrogen, to freeze the dead bodies and slow decomposition. The ship was secured to the inflatable structure and attached to the Ievoli Ivory platform vessel, which carried it 320 kilometers to Sicily.

Extracting the Dead

It took nearly five days to reach the Melilli base, where Cattaneo was eagerly waiting. There it was placed inside a hangar and carefully cut open with electric saws. Because two of the survivors were on trial, the doors and gates between the boat’s three levels had to be left untouched so police investigators could determine if they had been locked, dooming people to death. Some of the survivors recounted this horrific detail when they testified. Women and children, they said, are generally locked in the lower levels of migrant ships by traffickers to keep the overcrowded vessels balanced and to satisfy a pricing structure—migrants who can pay more have access to fresh air and relatively better safety.

Once secured on land the Peschereccio was moved into an enormous tent structure. Italy’s fire brigade spent the next several weeks extracting the dead from the three ship levels by spraying them with liquid nitrogen so they could literally be peeled from the wooden decks. Cattaneo asked the workers to try to put any clothing or personal effects for each body into the same body bag, but the bodies were often found embracing, which made the task not only logistically difficult but emotionally trying. “At the bottom of the vessel we found the skeletal remains of pregnant women and children clinging on to each other,” says Paolo Quatropani, a fire brigade inspector. “We were witnesses to the horrific end of their lives as if it was frozen in time. To think of the inhumane way these people died is unimaginable.”

In all, the remains filled 458 body bags. Cattaneo says that roughly half the bodies were badly decomposed and half were skeletons, but most of the personal belongings were still there. “Maybe one bag has 10 skulls and 11 femurs from different people,” she explains from her forensics laboratory in Milan, where samples were taken to be analyzed.

Credit: Mapping Specialists; Source: BBC News

By January 2017 Cattaneo and her team had identified remains from 531 different people, including a number of children and fetuses. Added to the 169 bodies found outside the ship and the 28 survivors, she can be sure that there were at least 728 people onboard, not counting those bodies that were devoured by sea life or that drifted off.

Resorting to Extremes

Once outside the ship, the body bags were assigned a number and stored in a refrigerated Red Cross truck inside the base. The forensic work proceeded slowly because there were generally only four forensic experts performing autopsies and collecting data at any time. Occasionally other pathologists, anthropologists and forensics students lent a hand. All were unpaid volunteers.

Each body took about a day to thaw out. Cattaneo and her team tried to be as dignified as possible, although it escaped no one that the blue body bags with numbers scrawled in black magic marker were filled with nothing that resembled a human life. They were placed into a metal trough and wheeled into the morgue where they were opened carefully to avoid catching the zipper on any clothing or hair that might have come loose as the bodies thawed. The experts removed the clothing and carefully washed it in a metal sink, searching the pockets and seams for clues to just whom they were working on.

Each corpse was photographed and videotaped, no matter what state it was in. The skeletons were reassembled and forensic anthropologists looked at seams along the bony plates of the head and cartilage at the ends of the ribs, which can reveal signs of malnourishment. They searched for signs that helped determine age, sex and general health as well as torture, which would be reported to authorities.

Cattaneo and other volunteers prepare to open a body bag. They photograph and videotape each corpse, take DNA samples, examine broken bones and eroded cartilage, and make a 3-D scan of each skull, all data for a victim’s database. Credit: Salvatore Cavalli AP Photo

When there was flesh, the bodies were washed and examined for other identifying factors. Tattoos, hairstyles, scars and fractures, when present, were noted because they may eventually be enough for someone to one day identify a loved one, in the absence of a DNA match. Cattaneo says the team was surprised to find shark bites on some of the dead although they had drowned in an area where sharks were not known to migrate.

No matter its condition, each skull was given a 3-D cranial scan using technology donated by General Electric. Such scans are rarely done in routine autopsies because they are deemed superfluous in most cases, especially when there is visual identification to go along with DNA. From a 3-D cranial scan, experts can bypass dental records and use photographs to try to make a match. If a loved one happens to send a photograph or if the victim had a Facebook page, trained experts can verify a match based on smile profiles or other distinguishing features like eye placement and cheekbones.

Each Victim Has a Story

Cattaneo points out with empathy and respect that each migrant body bag contained a life story. Among the human remains she found bags of dirt from migrants’ homelands, religious artifacts and many photos. Most of the bodies told the stories of poverty—missing teeth or rough healing of untreated fractures. She and her team often discuss what they believe must have led migrants to decide to risk their lives on the dangerous sea crossings. “It is impossible to get into death without having compassion,” she says. “One boy had a report card in his pocket with his grades in chemistry and physics.” She wonders if he had hoped to use it to prove he had been to school when he got settled in Europe.

In the vast majority of disasters where bodies are identified, dental records provide the earliest clue to identity. Even a badly decomposed body will show teeth, fillings and dental patterns. But migrants from poor countries almost never have dental records that can be used for such a match. Part of the reason people escape poverty is because basic health care and other necessities that most of the world’s citizens take for granted do not exist. “The three kings of identification are DNA, fingerprints and dental records,” Cattaneo says. “But those are for rich people.” Finding fingerprints is a long shot unless the individual had been arrested for a major crime in a country with an online database. DNA tracking is almost impossible because there are rarely first-line relatives. “And we certainly won’t get that toothbrush to make a match.”

Now that all of Cattaneo’s corpses are catalogued, they are being added to Italy’s missing person’s database—the first time in Europe migrant deaths will have been treated the same as other missing persons. But there is still little to go on. The individuals who survived the shipwreck are not much help. The survivor Diabate could be crucial to at least one of Cattaneo’s profiles—that of his brother—but he is not sure he wants to cooperate. First, he is concerned that by giving his DNA, he might be subject to legal woes, including repatriation back to the Ivory Coast if he is not granted asylum. He is also quite sure his brother is buried in Malta because he saw him sink outside the ship, so his body might have been recovered. “He was not one of these cadavers they are working on,” Diabate tells me from the Mineo refugee center in Sicily, where he is waiting to hear about his asylum claim. Cattaneo has no idea if Maltese authorities will exhume the buried remains for autopsies that could be added to her database. “It is a different country and jurisdiction,” she says. “They have to determine how to add those to our list.”

Cattaneo puts each individual’s belongings—from religious artifacts to tiny bags of soil from home—in a plastic bag, which could offer a match for someone searching for a missing person. One boy had a report card in his pocket with his grades in chemistry and physics, probably to prove he had been in school. Credit: Antonio Calanni AP Photo

Diabate’s reluctance is one of the many problems Cattaneo and her team face. And even if he does eventually give his DNA, it may not be enough to positively identify his brother. Generally, sibling DNA matches are not exact. What makes matters worse is that there is no mechanism in place to collect verifiable DNA in developing countries, where most of the Peschereccio passengers likely came from. So far the only forensic evidence the team has received is an envelope containing 10 nail clippings, sent by regular mail from Senegal from a woman who heard about the shipwreck and thinks her son might have been on that ship. She wrote to Cattaneo after reading about the work in a French news article. If any of the clippings match the DNA profiles, Cattaneo will have to try to reach the woman and ask for more verifiable DNA to be tested again; international protocol prescribes that all DNA must be collected and logged by a third party or it can’t be legally accepted, to avoid false claims of identity in cases of inheritance disputes or other issues.

No Death in Vain

The work Cattaneo and her team are doing has come to be known as the “Melilla model” by a European Council parliamentary group, the No Hate Alliance. It lobbies for equality among all people and seeks to legitimize the practice of going beyond conventional DNA matching to include, for the first time, a legal acceptance of anatomical parameters like scars and clothing for legally accepted matches. The primary purpose is not only to give closure to the living but to pave the way for legal procedures like adoption of orphaned children, transfer of property and other bureaucratic activities that require a death certificate with a full name.

Cattaneo’s work could also pave the way for positive identification in other mass casualty events like the discovery of mass graves or when towns have been leveled by war, especially in developing countries and conflict zones like Syria. She detailed the methods she and her team used in a book released in Italian in December 2016 called Diritti Annegati (Drowned Rights), which she penned with civil rights lawyer Marilisa D’Amico. The singular purpose is drawing attention to the dire need to legitimize the search and identification of drowned migrants, just as the forensic community does for First World victims. “The necessity for a procedure to identify unknown cadavers in mass proportion is urgent in the context of migrants,” she wrote, “precisely because the list of possibilities for a match is not closed.”

Once all the analysis of the autopsies is finalized—still in progress today—the forensic team will work on finding trends among the victims. It is rare to work with such a vast group of people who died at roughly the same time and experienced the same conditions after death, so studies will be done for years based on what the team is discovering. Already, more than 21 universities in Italy and dozens from abroad have approached them to learn about the procedures being used on the Peschereccio victims.

Death with dignity: Local citizens stand at the funeral held by Gristina for 13 drowned migrants, to make a statement that every life has value and every dead person should be treated with respect. Credit: Carmelo Imbesi AP Photo

It may be too early to tell exactly what new ground has been broken, but Cattaneo is certain eventual comparative studies will lead to important conclusions in forensics. She also hopes that through the work advances will be made that make cranial scans more cost effective. She envisions a dronelike device that scans the body, taking measurements that today are still done with traditional tools like tape measures. But right now she is only concerned with finishing profiles of the unknown. If nothing else, the work will mean that none of these people died anonymously, even if they remain nameless.