DNA experts needed as Surfside recovery mission nears end

Identifying victims has become more challenging weeks after condo collapse

The passage of time has made identifying the victims at Surfside more difficult and help is needed by even more experts including a certified forensic anthropologist.

SURFSIDE, Fla. – As of Monday, the death toll was at 97 in the Surfside Champlain Towers South collapse. And all but two of those victims have been identified.

More than three weeks after the tragedy, experts say it gets more difficult to identify victims and extraordinary steps must be taken to get positive IDs.

Darren Caprara, director of operations for the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office, explained in a rare interview, how the passage of time has led to a more complicated hunt for DNA.

“We are still using DNA, it’s just a question of how we get that DNA. Over time, it becomes tougher and tougher to get DNA from an individual,” he said.

Caprara said that during the first couple of days of the disaster, a mouth swab was sufficient to get the DNA that was needed for identification.

“Then we transitioned to tissue,” he said.

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Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s office also wanted the public to know how the process is evolving.

“At this step in the recovery process, it has become increasingly difficult to identify victims, and we are relying heavily on the work of the medical examiner’s office and the scientific, technical process of identifying human remains. This work becomes more difficult with the passage of time although our teams are working as hard and as fast as they can.”

Caprara said a certified forensic anthropologist had to be brought in to assist the team and is working to extract DNA from recovered bones.

When it came to DNA harvesting and the actual inspection of bones, Caprara said there are specific skill sets needed. They reached out to an organization called FEMORS, the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System.

“We asked for specific talents to help us in the question to collect DNA evidence and also to identify the bones that we were finding,” Caprara said.

They have now brought in four scientists with advanced skill sets to help with identification as the recovery process continues.

“We keep them on scene almost 24/7 through the recovery,” Caprara said.

Caprara said the recovery still entails using what he called “tried and true forensic techniques,” such as fingerprints and dental records, for instance.

There’s another layer his office handles after the scientific process of identification and that is the compassionate work of notification.

The process, he explained, is that the family learns from police that their loved one has been found and then the medical examiner’s office assigns an investigator to work directly with the family.

“Let them know what to expect and then working with them on any sort of arrangement that they might want to make for their loved one after the medical examiner has done its work,” he explained.

Caprara said that they have five pillars that they strive for in every case – timeliness, accuracy, professionalism, compassion and treating every person with dignity, and not just in this tragedy, but in all of their dealings with the community.

“Families have lots of questions,” Caprara said. “The unknown is probably one of their biggest concerns. This is all new for most of them. So, having someone in our building that they can reach out to, that they can call anytime and get all their questions answered and then be there to walk them through this very difficult process. I think it provides a lot of value and really does help.”

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.