Forensics experts earn police medals
China blue eyes stare out from the photograph of a blond-haired little boy, pinned to a `missing persons' noticeboard in a tsunami-ravaged Thai village.
It's a face that haunts Professor Roger Byard, four years after the University of Adelaide forensic pathologist was thrown into the most horrifying ordeal of his life.
The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami left a body count of more than 225,000 people in 11 countries, prompting the world's largest humanitarian effort in recorded history.
Professor Byard and the Director of Forensic Odontology at the University of Adelaide, Dr Helen James, were part of an international contingent of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) specialists who were flown in to Thailand from all corners of the globe to help identify the dead, working in the most appalling conditions imaginable.
Rotting bodies were brought in by the truckloads and towering stacks of coffins marked sites where bodies were processed, with teams of specialist police and forensic investigators working in makeshift mortuary tents for up to 12 hours straight.
The Australian contingent consisted of crime scene officers, fingerprint analysts, dentists and pathologists who were deployed for two-week rotations.
Over a fortnight, Professor Byard and Dr James helped to identify several hundred bodies.
Just two years earlier Professor Byard was part of the Bali bombing aid effort, spending countless hours sifting through the remains of the 202 dead to help in the identification process.
"Security issues were of prime consideration in Bali as the disaster was the result of international terrorism and not the consequence of a natural event," he said. "In Bali, although the number of victims was relatively low, progress was slow owing to dismemberment of many of the bodies."
Both experiences have earned Professor Byard an Australian Federal Police (AFP) Operations Medal, presented last month by the SA Police Commissioner, Malcolm Hyde, at a special parade at Fort Largs.
Dr Helen James has also received an AFP medal for her work in Thailand, identifying bodies from the 2004 tsunami.
Professor Byard is the only South Australian civilian to be awarded the AFP Operations Medal for both Bali (Operation Alliance) and the Asian Tsunami (Operation Cawdor). He was awarded the Humanitarian Overseas Medal in 2006 for his work in Thailand.
"The scale of the tsunami was just so overwhelming," he recalled. "It was the worst thing I have ever witnessed in my life."
But in a surreal way, he also saw human nature at its best. "In Thailand, hundreds of Buddhist monks would wander around the dead bodies at night to bring peace to the spirits of the dead. I also attended a ceremony to honour the dead in which 2000 rice paper lanterns were released into the night sky. It was like watching the Milky Way over our heads. Without a doubt, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
Dr James was the first South Australian Disaster Victim Identification specialist on the ground after the tsunami, working out of the Yan Yao temple in Takua Pa, north of Phuket.
"Theoretically we were prepared, but the reality was fairly stark because I was on the first rotation and there was still a lot of confusion," she said.
"From a professional perspective it was invaluable, and it was a privilege to have been there to make a difference."
Dr James also received a Humanitarian Overseas Medal in 2006 for her work in the tsunami. She was also involved in the identification of bodies in Bali, working out of Adelaide and liaising with Australian relatives to provide dental information to the teams at the bomb site.
Dr Giac Cirillo, Dr Tony Lake and Dr Kain Rowlings, all former University of Adelaide staff members associated with the Forensic Odontology Unit, also received the AFP Operations Medal.
Story by Candy Gibson