Lagos Building Collapse : SA Victim Support

Pretoria - Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, has assured South Africans that government is committed to ensuring that the mortal remains of South African citizens, who lost their lives in Lagos, are accurately identified and brought home.

On 12 September, 84 South Africans died when a building at the Synagogue Church of all Nations in Nigeria collapsed. On Friday, 25 injured South Africans returned home, while one remained in Lagos.

Minister Radebe, who is the head of the Inter-Ministerial Task Team on the Nigeria tragedy, updated media on Wednesday on the identification process of South African citizens in Lagos.

"We want to assure the nation that we shall spare neither strength nor effort in ensuring that the deceased are repatriated back home. We believe the repatriation of the deceased is the crucial first step towards helping the families find closure in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy.

"We will make sure that all deceased persons are repatriated and that the correct body is handed over to the right family. It is very important to note that the identification of bodies in a disaster situation is a specialised scientific process which involves painstakingly thorough procedures," the minister said.

He said the South African team of experts on the ground in Nigeria is working closely with officials from the Nigerian Federal Government as well as the State of Lagos to ensure that the process is completed as soon as possible.

The South African team is led by Brigadier Leone Ras, an international expert in body identification from the South African Police Service. She is supported by Professor Gert Saaiman, Chief State Pathologist from South Africa.

Minister Radebe said the identification process is done through a precise process of elimination and utilises accurate information, as detailed below:

* Direct Identification: Where possible the body may be identified by next of kin, if they are present in Lagos. "This requires physical identification of the body amongst the others. This is often a very traumatic and painful process. Due to the nature of injuries involved in this incident, only a limited number of the bodies may be identified through this method."
* Photo Identification: Photos of a person are used to compare with mainly facial features of the bodies in the mortuary. "If a match is found, the identification is then confirmed using fingerprints and other bodily characteristics," he said.
* Fingerprint Data Base Comparison: The fingerprints from the deceased are compared with the fingerprint databases from the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Police Service. "This is done by fingerprint experts and it takes a considerable amount of time. This is a reliable method that is commonly used in identifying deceased persons. However, in some instances due to the injuries sustained, this method may not be viable," the minister said.
* Dental Record Comparison: If fingerprint database comparison does not succeed in the identification of the deceased, the dental characteristics of the body are compared with dental records of individuals prior to the event. "This method is only possible where the dental records can be accessed from the dentist that the deceased person visited. "We, therefore, appeal to the family members of unaccounted South Africans who are presumed to have been at the church to provide Police with information of the dentist or dental clinic their relative had visited over the past 8 years."
* DNA Sample: If no identification can be reached with any of the above methods, a DNA sample of the body is compared with a DNA sample collected from a close relative. "For this purpose, experts from the SA Police Service are currently visiting families and are collecting DNA samples. This sampling is a simple non-painful process with no risks to the family member. It is important to note that the process takes time." The DNA samples collected from the deceased will be compared with the DNA samples collected from family members.

"As we strive to ensure that the body identification is completed as soon as possible, we equally have to make sure that the processes are done in line with Lagos State and Nigerian Federal laws," Minister Radebe said.
He said government appeals to the families and the nation to bear with them and allow their team in Nigeria the necessary time to complete the process of identifying the bodies.

"It is clear from the information above that this is a methodical and time consuming process. While we may not be able to predict the exact timeframes for completion, all possible efforts are being made by all parties involved to keep this period of uncertainty as short as possible," he said.

He said as soon as the bodies are identified, a team of 70 experts from the South African Military Health Service and the Department of Health will depart to Lagos with specialised equipment to transport the deceased back to South Africa with the required care and respect.

The minister thanked the South African National Defence Force for the successful evacuation of the injured South African citizens from Lagos back home to South Africa on Monday, 22 September, 2014.

"They have indeed made all of us very proud as a nation."

The Minister said of the patients admitted to the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, two are still in critical care, two have been transferred to private facilities at the request of their families and four patients have been discharged to the care of their families.

"On behalf of government and the people of South Africa, we wish the patients who remain in the care of the medical staff at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital a speedy recovery," Minister Radebe said.

A national task team comprising Social Development, SAPS Chaplain Services and the Victim Identification Centre has been visiting families of people presumed to have died at the church. Other teams of social workers are providing psycho-social support to survivors and families of victims at the Steve Biko Hospital, OR Tambo International Airport and the DIRCO call centre.

Families with members, who are not yet accounted for should, contact the information line: 012 351 1000

The Department of Social Development has activated a call centre for those who require the assistance of a grief counsellor: 0800 428 428.

They can alternatively send a "please call me" to: *120*7867#. Professional counsellors will call back and help them deal with the trauma of losing a loved one or not knowing what has happened to them.

"Government wishes to thank all people involved in offering support to the affected families and urge that we all continue to hold their hands and comfort them during this difficult period," said Minister Radebe.