Crashes of Commercial Aircraft

In crashes involving commercial planes, the main role of the forensic pathologist is to identify the bodies. Initially, identification should be attempted using fingerprinting, dental identification and comparison of ante- and postmortem X-rays. If these methods are unsatisfactory, one can use DNA typing. DNA identification procedures can be used not only for whole bodies but also for body fragments. As a last resort, it might be necessary to utilize nonscientific methods of identification, such as documents on the bodies, jewelry, exclusion (for example, knowing that there is only one child on board), or use of nonspecific characteristics such as tattoos and scars. The forensic pathologist should always have a team of dentists on call for any major airplane crash. Both forensic and non-forensic dentists are usually willing to volunteer to make up the team. All medi-colegal offices should have disaster plans in place to be used if a major air crash occurs.

In addition to identifying the passengers' remains, the forensic pathologist will autopsy the flight crew in attempting to determine whether natural disease or drugs might have contributed to the accident, although, because of the size of the flight crew and the sophisticated instrumentation of commercial planes, this is highly unlikely. The forensic pathologist will search for trauma unrelated to the crash that might explain why the crash occurred. Thus, one will look for gunshot wounds and evidence of an explosion. Bodies may be X-rayed to look for bomb fragments. Autopsies on passengers will usually be selective and intended to shed light on how the plane crashed, whether gases produced by fire played a part in the deaths, and whether there is evidence of explosive injuries.

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