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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Police sketches helping families track down unidentified disaster victims


MORIOKA, Iwate Pref. — Police are using composite sketches to assist the relatives of missing victims of last year's natural disasters.

Toshiro Saito, 47, received a phone call June 26 from a relative who lives in Sendai. Saito, of Saitama Prefecture, had been searching for his parents, who lived in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, before they disappeared in the March 11, 2011, tsunami.

The relative told Saito that a composite sketch published in a local newspaper looked like his father, Shigeo. Only half-believing the news, Saito found the sketch on the Miyagi Prefectural Police's website.

"The eyes and the thin hair on the sketch resembled my father's," Saito recalled.

A few days later, he visited the police station in Kesennuma. Tears filled his eyes when he was shown a khaki sweater he recognized as belonging to his dad.

After a DNA test, the body was confirmed to be that of Shigeo Saito. It turned out his body was found only five days after the disasters, about 800 meters from their seafront home. "I wish I could have gone earlier," Saito said.

Some 16 months after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, 183 bodies in Miyagi and 95 bodies in neighboring Iwate Prefecture remain unidentified, according to police.

Out of 40 composite sketches of unidentified dead released by the Miyagi police, six bodies, including that of Saito's father, have been identified. The Iwate police have released 10 composite sketches.

Yuji Taguchi, 57, an Iwate policeman specializing in portrait sketches and body identification, said it is hard to reproduce the hairstyles of tsunami victims.

He said he uses a magnifying glass to identify bruises and scars, and tries to express detailed facial features such as wrinkles and eyelids.

Sketches are useful because they can be released to a wider public than photographs, which can be gruesome. Thanks to the sketches, police are receiving information from neighbors of victims as well, an officer said.

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