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February 2009
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Bushfire scenes 'devastating'

This month's devastating bushfires in South Australia drew offers of support from agencies around the country. New Zealand Police staff from the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team were quickly deployed across the Tasman to assist in the identification of people killed there.

Disaster Victim Identification team members Al Hendrickson from Blenheim, left, and Richard McPhail from Invercargill leaving Wellington for Melbourne.

Photo: Phil Reid, The Dominion Post

A second team of police Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) specialists left NZ on 2 March to assist Victoria Police following the tragedy.

This team of three (two from Wellington District, one from Canterbury) will relieve the six staff from the National DVI team who have been in Victoria since 11th February.

The latest team includes a fingerprint specialist and is led by Wellington District Search and Rescue coordinator Sergeant Joanne Holden. They are scheduled to remain in Victoria until March 25.

The six DVI team members already in Victoria will return to New Zealand along with the four Police victim recovery dogs and their handlers.

The initial six DVI officers worked in the devastated townships of Kinglake and Marysville after arriving in Victoria on 11 February.

One of the four victim recovery dogs sets out to help Victorian dog teams.

Photo: Rebecca Aalberg, RNZAF

Senior Sergeant Richard McPhail, of Invercargill who led the initial deployment says, “We’ve never seen anything like it. There are scenes of absolute devastation – it is mindblowing."

“I was in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami but this is different. The fire has taken everything away. Marysville has been wiped off the map.”

The first team also included Sergeants Karl Wilson and Dene Duthie, from Auckland Metro Crime and Operations Support (AMCOS), and Senior Constable Darren Calkin, Auckland, as well as Senior Constables Barry Shepherd from Bay of Plenty and Alan Hendrickson of Tasman.

Richard says the team was first sent to the Kinglake area completing house searches, before moving to relieve Victoria Police who had been undertaking scene work and victim identification in Marysville.

Tagged with local officers, they’ve been sifting through some of the 1000 or so houses that estimates indicate have been razed to the ground.

“We spent the first day working through the remains of a house with a man whose wife and son are believed to have perished in the bath tub,” says Richard.

“The terrain is totally devastated. The fire went through an area the same distance as from Hamilton to Auckland, in a 10km-wide band. Locals said the speed and intensity meant it sounded like a jumbo jet.”

“The work is very methodical, and we’ve been working up to 13 hours a day. The team have been supporting each other and reflecting on the scenes we’ve faced.

“The local people are also very appreciative of us being here – one man was amazed when he saw the New Zealand Police insignia on our uniforms.”

Dog handlers Constable Nick Prince, left, and Sergeant Alastair Sim speak to Prime Minister John Key before departing for Victoria from Auckland Airport.

Photo: David Rowland, NZPA

The DVI team have now returned to Melbourne where they are assisting Victoria Coronial Services.

“This reconciliation work is all about what we do – matching evidence like DNA with identities. It allows us to reunite victims with their loved ones and is the most satisfying aspect of the job,” says Richard.

Inspector Gerry Prins, Emergency Management, PNHQ confirmed that deployments are expected to continue for a further 12 weeks.

The four NZ Police victim recovery dogs and their handlers are also worked in difficult conditions around Kinglake and Marysville. Sergeant Shane Salmond and Constable Jason Homan, AMCOS, Sergeant Alastair Sim, Canterbury, and Constable Nick Prince, Wellington and their dogs were deployed alongside dog teams from Victoria Police.

Two New Zealand specialists in forensic dentistry – Dr Hugh Trengrove of Wellington and Dr Zafer Khouri of Hamilton – have also gone to Victoria to assist in the identification of victims.

Dr Trengrove is a dental expert with the New Zealand Defence Force where he holds the rank of Colonel. Both men were involved in victim identification following the 2004 tsunami.

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