9 years of sleuthing put name to '48 crash victim
It took nine years of sleuthing and advanced DNA science and cutting-edge forensic techniques, but a mummified hand and arm found in an Alaska glacier have been identified.
The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE — It took nine years of sleuthing and advanced DNA science and cutting-edge forensic techniques, but a mummified hand and arm found in an Alaska glacier have been identified.
The remains belong to Francis Joseph Van Zandt, a 36-year-old merchant mariner from Roanoke, Va., who was on a plane rumored to contain lots of gold when it smashed into the side of a mountain in 1948. Thirty people died in the crash of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422.
"This is the oldest identification of fingerprints by post-mortem remains," said latent-fingerprint expert Mike Grimm Sr., during a teleconference Friday, where the two pilots who found the remains, genetic scientists, genealogists and others talked about the discovery.
Twenty-four merchant mariners and six crewmen died in the crash on March 12, 1948. They were going from China to New York City when the DC-4 went into the side of Mount Sanford, perhaps because the pilots were blinded by an unusually intense aurora borealis that night. The wreckage disappeared into the glacier within a few days.
The DC-4 was rumored to hold the gold because the merchant mariners had just delivered an oil tanker to Shanghai. While no gold was found, the two commercial airline pilots who discovered the wreckage found themselves on a scientific adventure filled with high-tech sleuthing.
The pilots, Kevin McGregor and Marc Millican, discovered the mummified remains in 1999 while recovering artifacts to identify the wreckage found two years earlier.
An Alaska State Trooper flew to the glacier to take possession of the remains, which were flown to Anchorage, where the state medical examiner at that time obtained inked prints. The remains then were embalmed.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety's attempts to identify the fingerprints failed because their details were unclear.
A few pieces of the arm were sent to a commercial DNA laboratory. However, no data could be obtained because the remains, having been in a frozen and dehydrated state for decades, were too degraded.
In 2002, the arm and hand were sent to a DNA expert Dr. Ryan Parr at Genesis Genomics in Thunder Bay, Canada, who was able to extract some DNA. However, relatives of the victim still had to be found for a mitochondrial DNA match.
In 2006, Dr. Odile Loreille at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., was asked to help. "I managed to get a mitochondrial sequence," she said. "Now I just needed some relatives to compare."
Forensic genealogist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and her assistants found family members of 16 of the victims, but no DNA matches.
In the meantime, Grimm and his son, Mike Grimm Jr., began work with Edward Robinson, a professor of forensic science at George Washington University. After Robinson made several unsuccessful attempts to rehydrate the fingers, a new solution did the trick. Special imaging techniques then produced a complete set of fully legible fingerprints.
On Sept. 6, 2007, the prints were compared with some kept at the National Marine Center in Arlington, Va., and a match was found.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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