Mount Meron disaster: Behind the scenes of the Abu Kir investigation

HEALTH AFFAIRS: ‘They came from a big festival and suddenly, death’

NEXT OF KIN of the victims of last week’s tragedy at Mount Meron arrive at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv to identify the bodies of their loved ones. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
NEXT OF KIN of the victims of last week’s tragedy at Mount Meron arrive at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv to identify the bodies of their loved ones.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)
 The now defunct TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation often portrayed a small team of one or two forensic scientists cracking a murder mystery within an hour. But in real life, such as at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, painstaking efforts are required to help identify Israel’s dead, solve the country’s crimes and help ensure justice for the people. 
Abu Kabir, formally known as the L. Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine, is located in a modest building in Tel Aviv. On each floor there is a series of labs filled with microscopes and black lights, chemicals and hot waxes and tiny vials filled with biological materials, including human tissue. 
Last Friday, the institute was packed with people – the loved ones of 45 victims of the Meron tragedy who were waiting to identify their family members and bury them.
The waiting room is located in the heart of the institute, between the reception desk, on the one hand, and the team of forensic scientists, on the other, who are working hard to ensure the victims are properly identified before release. 
“You could hear the cries and the shouting and the screaming while you were working,” institute head Dr. Chen Kugel told The Jerusalem Post. “People are breaking down, calling to these dead people, ‘Why did you go?’ and ‘Please wake up.’ It is exceedingly difficult emotionally to work through this. You cannot be indifferent.”
The 45 bodies were brought to Abu Kabir at the request of the Northern District Police, they said – a central and safe area for families to claim their loved ones. All of the victims were delivered to the institute at once at around 12 p.m. on Friday. By Shabbat, more than 30 victims had been identified and 22 victims released. It took until Sunday morning to complete the process.
“It is always difficult to see the families,” Kugel said, “but this situation was especially hard. They came from this big festival, and suddenly – death. It was very difficult.”
He said that he is not affected by the dead, but by their loved ones who remain after them.
Kugel has been working at the institute off and on in various capacities since the late 1990s and remembers the attacks of the intifadas like they were yesterday – especially the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque massacre, in which 21 people were killed and 120 were wounded when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the popular club. Most of the victims were youth from the former Soviet Union. 
“The families were very small – a father or mother and a child,” Kugel recalled. “I remember, for example, this mother who was a doctor in Russia but moved to Israel and could not find a job. She became a cleaning lady to support her daughter, whom I identified. I came to tell her that her daughter was blown up. It was heart-wrenching. She felt she had lost everything. She’d given up her career, and now there was no daughter to raise in Israel anymore.” 
Kugel said there are many stories like this one, stories that keep him up at night. Since Meron, he told the Post, he has not been able to sleep.
“Many people say we are professionals, and it doesn’t affect us, but anyone who says that is not serious,” he said. “You cannot refrain from thinking about this, about the families. The dead person is dead, but the family members remain, and their lives have been changed forever.”
Kugel also has a hard time with the suicide cases, he added, thinking about how much suffering the person must have gone through to end up in his institute.
THE ABU KABIR Institute employs 62 staff members and another 40 contractors. Kugel has been heading it since 2013. 
He explained that identifying bodies is a multipronged process that takes place both in the lab and with the families. It can involve fingerprinting, taking DNA samples or CT scans and basic physical examinations to look for unique attributes like scars or moles.
At the same time, family members are being asked to share these attributes and sometimes to provide dental or other medical records. The postmortem and the antemortem records are then compared.
Kugel said that the institute tries to evade visual identification whenever possible, both to protect family members from seeing their loved ones in a tragic state and because it can sometimes be inaccurate. 
“People change after death,” he said. 
Many of the Meron victims died of asphyxiation, meaning they died because they could not breathe. As such, their faces in many cases became swollen and purple. In addition, some of the casualties suffered from severe abrasions. 
It was difficult for the staff to identify the victims, all men, because they were largely homogeneous, Kugel added. They wore the same color clothes, had beards, did not have any tattoos and mostly were not carrying national identity cards in their pockets. Because these were hassidic men, they had not been conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces, and therefore there were no recent fingerprints in the database with which to compare. 
“There was a lot of pressure,” he said of last Friday afternoon. “These people are ultra-Orthodox, and it was important for them to bury the bodies before Shabbat. But the actual time frame in which we worked made that impossible. At 12 p.m. they brought 45 bodies to the institute and expected us to finish our work in six-and-a-half hours. No one in the world could do that seriously.”
There were eight board-certified pathologists and five residents working on the Meron tragedy, among them Dr. Nurit Bublil, head of the institute’s labs.
“We were wearing white robes, and the families would come up to us and beg us to ‘please help me,’” she said. “You want to find the child or father, but all you can say is that it will take time and you really don’t know where he is. We will find him. We are working on it. But the families feel so lost. 
“Our mission is to identify the bodies,” she continued. “The aid to the families is not our job, but you cannot ignore them when they are right there, in front of you. There is an aftershock here in the institute.”
ABU KABIR DOCTORS and scientists are used to working under pressure, Kugel said. In some ways, their jobs have gotten easier as new technologies have been developed to speed up identification and make it more accurate than before. 
The institute is the sole address for all suspicious deaths in Israel. According to Kugel, there are about 200 murder cases a year, but close to 2,000 suspicious deaths – people who are found dead with no cause. This can be suicide, an accident or a natural death. It is Abu Kabir’s job to find out.
The institute also handles victim identification, such as in the case of the Meron crush, as well as what is known as clinical forensic medicine. In the case of Abu Kabir, this means examining medical records of living people to assist in civil or criminal legal cases.
A pathology lab deals with preparation of tissue samples that are needed for autopsies. The scientists are looking for any pathological changes within the dead person’s tissues, such as changes to the heart, brain or different malignancies that may have led to a person’s death.
Other labs aid in the identification of skeletal remains and their cause of death, use chemistry to identify the nature and composition of a substance or material, identify DNA from bodily evidence found in criminal cases and even examine bite marks and dental records.
Some crimes are solved through scientific analysis of biological traces on nonbiological pieces of evidence, such as shoes or rocks or even cars.
“The major expertise of our lab specialists is to be able to generate a genetic profile or genetic identity card,” Bublil explained. She said every human being has “special markers that we are able to identify.”
But unlike in a standard lab, where a person gives blood, here the biologic traces with which to create the genetic identity have to be established from different kinds of evidence – items that are brought to the institute from criminal scenes, for example.
“Police are responsible for criminal investigations, and they bring to the lab different items that need to be checked to see if there is any DNA there,” Bublil told the Post. “We try to identify the person that was in touch with the item, see if he left any kind of human traces.”
That could be blood, semen or even sweat. 
Sometimes it is easier, like if there is a visible blood spot. Other times, scientists have to be more creative and use their common sense.
“If you want to check eyeglasses, you seek out spots that have the highest contact with a person, such as the bridge of the nose,” Bublil said. In the case of a T-shirt, they may test the label or the underarms for DNA.
Police share the story behind the objects they are bringing to the lab to provide clues to the scientists and help direct them. 
“Let us say the police bring shoes to the lab,” Bulbil said. “We need to know what the story is behind these shoes. Were they taken off the suspect, so we already know they are his and the main reason we are checking them is to see if someone else’s DNA is on them?
“If the shoes were abandoned, are we trying to establish a relation to a criminal event, perhaps identify the person who wore them?”
She recalled a “big story” last year in which a victim was raped and murdered, and a clothes item was found near the scene. When her blood was discovered on the sweatshirt, it became incredibly important to find out who wore it. 
Bublil said scientists have to be extra careful when handling objects so as not to destroy fingerprints or biological traces. 
Sometimes cases are easy, like when the DNA of a semen sample found in a rape victim matches the DNA of the perpetrator – nothing else is needed to nab the criminal. But most of the time, it is not so easy, and the lab can test as many as 40 different items to help solve a crime – including items that have been burned or tampered with, making it challenging to find any DNA at all.
“There is huge variance between cases and items,” she said, noting that technology and techniques are rapidly evolving to make the labs more effective. “I have to be very confident that the samples are correct, that there were not any changes during the process that could have led to a mistake.”
Sometimes, the lab creates a genetic profile, but there is no one to match it to – meaning, there is no suspect – so the profile remains “just many numbers, and all we know is the DNA belonged to a male or female.” 
The police can send the profile to the criminal DNA database in Jerusalem and see if anyone there is a match. If not, everyone waits.
Sometimes, a DNA match is discovered years later. 
“Police will phone and tell me they were searching the database and they have a hit, and everyone celebrates,” Bublil said. “But sometimes, you don’t get the answer.”