USA –All 173 people killed in Australia’s worst bushfire disaster have been identified.
Ninety-one days on from the Black Saturday bushfires, Victorian coroner Jennifer Coate announced the end of the identification process on a wet cold day, in contrast to the record-breaking 46.4 degree day when Victoria went up in flames.
The families of all victims have been informed.
The achievement of identifying all of the victims in three months was a surprise and a relief, Ms Coate told reporters on Saturday.
Forensic scientists strongly believed in the days following Black Saturday that the remains of many people would never be identified because they had been too badly burnt.
“The process has been complex and challenging given the intensity of the bushfires and of course the devastation and destruction,” Ms Coate said.
“Our initial concern expressed that we may not be able to identify all those reported missing.
“We are relieved to achieve identification for the 173 victims reported missing and hope it can bring some minimal comfort to those families bereaved.”
Indeed many victims were too badly burnt to identify scientifically, but in those cases the circumstantial evidence was strong enough to compensate, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine’s Professor Stephen Cordner told reporters.
“We anticipated it would be very difficult and that the coroner has been able to formally conclude identification for all those people missing is a wonderful thing,” he said.
“Circumstantial evidence can be as strong or stronger than scientific evidence in particular circumstances.”
No decisions had been made yet about whether inquests would be held into the deaths and it was up to families to decide whether a complete list of the names of the dead would ever be publicly released, Ms Coate said.
While the deaths of many people have been publicised, such as former TV newsreader Brian Naylor and his wife Moiree or actor Reg Evans and his partner, artist Angela Brunton, no complete list has been published.
Police deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe said police would talk to relatives about releasing names but it was their decision.
Mr Walshe, Ms Coate and Prof Cordner all said it had been a difficult time for families desperate for the remains of loved ones to be returned to them and police officers and forensics experts who had worked day and night during the period.
Ms Coate first banned property owners from returning home and then from doing clearing work so that evidence of human remains would not be disturbed following the fires.
The death toll was revised down to 173 from 210 about six weeks ago, with bushfires also destroying more than 2,000 homes and burning 421,670 hectares.
Formal hearings for the royal commission into the February 7 bushfires get underway on Monday.