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How Authorities Are Identifying The Victims Of The Florida Condo Collapse

Charles Burkett, mayor of Surfside, Fla., (left) talks with Rachel Spiegel, whose mother is missing in the Champlain Towers South collapse.
Lynne Sladky
Charles Burkett, mayor of Surfside, Fla., (left) talks with Rachel Spiegel, whose mother is missing in the Champlain Towers South collapse.

While rescuers continue to search for survivors amid the rubble from the building collapse in Surfside, Fla., law enforcement detectives and crime scene personnel are working to identify the human remains recovered from the wreckage.

Identifying the victims is a complicated process. At a press conference Monday, Miami-Dade Police Department Director Alfredo Ramirez III said the procedure depends on multiple variables, including the condition of the remains recovered.

Ramirez said crime scene investigators and staff from the medical examiner's office are on the scene, along with firefighters, if a body is found.

If possible, a rapid DNA test is performed and sent to a lab.

Law enforcement has asked relatives of the missing — the number of unaccounted for stands at more than 150 — to submit DNA to help identify the bodies and human remains pulled from the rubble.

"The moment that sample is taken, that detective, that analyst will run directly to the family unification center, where it's entered into a system," Ramirez said, so it can be matched with DNA from family members. A DNA profile match can be made in less than two hours.

Results must be then be verified through a secondary protocol at the lab.

Partial matches are unacceptable, the police director said: "It has to be 100% because we cannot re-victimize our family members and give them wrong information."

If a positive match is made, the police connect with the next of kin.

"It's very emotional," Ramirez said. "What we've gone through here, I think we're all family now."

When rapid DNA testing is possible, the whole process is typically completed within a day. If a rapid DNA test cannot be conducted, the remains are taken to the medical examiner's office for further identification.

Ramirez said the process is done with respect and integrity.

"We're dealing with a very terrible situation here," he said. "That's why we have to ... always keep mindful of our family members that are listening and watching right now."

At a later press briefing, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said the family assistance center had to relocate to a larger space to accommodate the increasing number of arriving friends and family members.

Officials at the assistance center provide the families with updates on rescue efforts and answer their many questions.

"We have them coping with the news that they may not have their loved ones come out alive, and still hope against hope that they will. They are learning that some of their loved ones will come out as body parts," Levine Cava said. "This is the kind of information that is just excruciating for everyone."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.