East End officer talks about identifying quake dead

Commander Nick Bracken belongs to an elite group of police officers who are qualified and experienced in the art of identifying the victims of disasters.

He has recently returned from New Zealand where he headed up a British Disaster Victim Identification team helping the authorities in Christchurch identifying those who died in the earthquake which struck on February 22.

Their job was to collect ante-mortem material, in layman’s terms evidence from when a person is alive, fingerprints, medical and dental records, and match them up with post-mortem evidence.

Mr Bracken said although New Zealand has capable and competent DVI teams of its own, the sheer numbers of victims meant they needed assistance. The quake claimed a total of 180 lives.

“It was quite bizarre because we arrived in Christchurch and went through the suburbs from the airport and it was all totally unaffected by the earthquake.

“Then we got to the central business district and the scenes there were of total devastation.

“There were buildings that were destroyed, there were crushed cars and buses. The sheer scale of it was enormous. It was quite scary because while we were there, there was a 4.8 after shock tremor and the building started shaking.”

Most Read

When asked how he copes with such scenes, he said: “You try to depersonalise it and try not to think about it. We concentrate on the positive - we know we are never going make things right for the next of kin but we can try and make sure we don’t make it worse. And knowing that we are going to give them some closure”. What he means is making sure there are no cases of wrongly identified victims.

Mr Bracken and his team were struck by the warmth of their reception. He even had a call from a man whose son he identified at the Ladbroke Grove crash some 11 years ago. He said “Thank you for coming”.

Others showed their appreciation with a standing ovation at a restaurant, by baking cakes for them while passengers at an airport began clapping as the team began its homeward journey.

The team comprised four Met officers, a scene photographer, a fingerprint specialist, a pathologist and an odontologist. All have a range of DVI experience and expertise, including specific family liaison skills.

Mr Bracken was born and bred in Plaistow and began his police career more than 30 years ago.

Throughout it he has led many high-profile investigations including the Paddington (Ladbroke Grove) and Selby train crashes. In 2004, following the Tsunami, he was appointed the Senior Identification Manager for the UK’s response and was subsequently appointed as the International Disaster Victim Identification Commander.

In 2006 he was made Borough Commander for Newham, followed by promotion to the Association of Chief Police Officers where he was appointed area commander in 2009.

Last year he was promoted to the role of Commander of East London. Several months ago he became Commander of Criminal Justice in the Met Police.