Article • Emergency Imaging

Forensics identify victims and terrorists

‘I am sorry, the electricity will be cut off because we’re going to simulate an attack, or emergency exercise, this morning,’ explained Dr Wim Develter, when he suddenly delayed his interview with Mélisande Rouger of European Hospital. They were about to discuss computed tomography, and its role not only in advanced healthcare and other more unexpected areas, such as the arts and forensics, but in recent years as a forensic tool in police investigations into terrorism. During ECR 2017, this leading forensic pathologist, from Leuven University Hospitals, will describe the procedures and practices within his work.

Wim Develter MD is a trained clinical pathologist and an expert in corporal damage. As such, he specialises in forensic medicine in the Department of Forensic Medicine at Leuven University Hospitals. He is also Secretary for the Royal Belgian Society of Legal Medicine.

Seasoned forensic pathologist Dr Wim Develter has worked on disaster victim identification (DVI) in four major catastrophes, including the terror attacks in Brussels airport in Zaventem, in March 2016.

At the department of Forensic Medicine Department at Leuven University Hospitals, in the Netherlands, he trains forensic pathologists. In its DI and crime scene investigation work, the department organises simulations in which an invasive attack or disaster takes place and the personnel must act accordingly.

In his latest exercise, Develter put mannequins with prostheses in a plane to train staff towards the identification model as well as to test whether Leuven’s facilities were big enough and if everyone was sufficiently trained. ‘We also tested the psychological support for the families. Shortly after that exercise, the Brussels bombings occurred, so we were well prepared,’ he added.

The examination of disaster victims and their remains often begins with CT exams, first to rule out danger in the bodies – hidden explosives or biohazard – and then to organise the identification process (complete bodies, body fragments or body parts). CT also helps by showing the pathologists whether the victims were wearing jewellery or metallic devices, such as prostheses, at the time of the disaster, information that can help to identify them. Once this information is gained, the forensic team can track down where he or she received surgery or where objects were bought.

Forensic scientists were trained with damaged mannequins and mock cases to identify victims.

Develter could not speak of the contents  of the on-going investigation regarding the Brussels attacks at the time  of our interview, but he said the identification process of a terrorist  or victim is similar. ‘After an attack you have a lot of extra  information that can be useful for your investigation. I am one of the  leading forensic pathologists in this enquiry, so I cannot say anything  about the contents of the investigation because of the instruction’s  secrecy,’ he said. However, during the ECR, he will share his experience  in disaster victim identification in other mass disasters.

As  a trained pathologist, Develter started working in forensics in the  wake of the Tsunami in Thailand in 2004 and, a decade later, worked on  the MH17 Ukraine plane crash. In both events, high-end CT imaging proved  very helpful in victim identification but its use depended very much on  the circumstances of the event.

Whilst  the plane crash victims could be related to a passenger list, things  were far more difficult after the Tsunami. ‘It was an open disaster,  people were in their swimsuits; they were not wearing any clothes, or  had cell phones or keys, there was nothing to identify them.

‘DNA was very important then and we were very lucky that China offered free DNA investigations for all victims.’

Memorial for the victims of three bomb attacks at Brussels airport and a metro station.

The  aftermath of the tsunami, which caused 227,000 people from all over the  world to lose their lives, became the catalyst to improve international  Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) protocols.

‘We  realised that we needed to have an international protocol because we  were all working in more or less the same way, but some countries, such  as Germany and the UK, had much more experience than others. So the  results could be different and that’s something that cannot be; if you  are performing one (international) investigation everything needs to be  on the same level and by the same criteria,’ Develter explained.

Whereas  in Europe the team often relies on mobile CT services, which can be  available within one or one and a half days in the entire continent,  protocols can change according to the situation and the forensic team  must adapt to local circumstances. ‘Everything is digitised now,’ he  pointed out. ‘Back then, twelve years ago in Thailand, everything was  written on paper.’ In addition, Develter and colleagues dealing with the  tsunami victims had to choose between ventilation and lighting to be  able to operate their devices, including the X-ray machines.

Things  were expedited after Thailand; forensic pathologists established a  protocol, which they extend annually. The International Criminal Police  Organisation (Interpol) in Lyon, France, is responsible for establishing  and revising the protocol every four years. Every year Develter and his  DVI pathologist colleagues participate in an Interpol meeting to  discuss the approach to global disasters, and exchange experiences and  discuss protocols.

His field has also  benefited tremendously from popular TV series such as CSI. ‘Forensics  became popular a few years ago thanks to these series. If you are not  well known it’s hard to find funding or grants for scientific projects.  Though still tough, that (program) has certainly helped our discipline.  It’s an upward spiral.’

The field is  multidisciplinary, among other specialities involving toxicology,  microbiology, biochemistry, radiology and pathology and police  investigative skills. ‘You need all these disciplines to answer just one  question: What happened? That’s why the other fields are also  interested: we’re all working to solve a mystery.


Wim  Develter MD is a trained clinical pathologist and an expert in corporal  damage. As such, he specialises in forensic medicine in the Department  of Forensic Medicine at Leuven University Hospitals. He is also  Secretary for the Royal Belgian Society of Legal Medicine.

Event information:

EM 1 - Emergency radiology

Friday, March 3, 10:30 - 12:00

Room: B Session

Type: ESR meets Belgium

Topic: Emergency Imaging

Moderators: G. M. Villeirs (Gent/BE), P. M. Parizel (Edegem/BE)


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