Tiny hospital with big task: Identifying the victims of AirAsia Flight QZ8501

Report from Borneo: Attempts to identify victims
Report from Borneo: Attempts to identify victims

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Report from Borneo: Attempts to identify victims 01:35

Story highlights

  • Red Cross and hospital workers in Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia receive bodies from downed airliner
  • Hospital director says many of the victims are intact despite being found in the water
  • Remains to be transported to Surabaya for formal identification by relatives

Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia (CNN)A 10-minute warning sounds and everyone jumps into action. More bodies are on the way.

Red Cross and hospital workers run to the front of the hospital in Pangkalan Bun, not even certain how many victims are coming.
    Sirens then announce the arrival of the remains of two innocent souls lost on AirAsia Flight QZ8501.
    Unfortunately, this little town in Indonesia's central Kalimantan Province has become the focal point for the recovery of bodies and debris from the airliner, which failed to complete its journey from Surabaya, the country's second-biggest city, to Singapore on Sunday.
    Orange body bags are loaded onto gurneys and rushed to a separate, private wing of the hospital. The unmistakeable smell of death lingers long after the victims have passed.
    Their bodies are then cleaned and treated with chemicals to preserve them. It must be a gruesome and heartbreaking job.
    Identification
    This is where the initial identification effort begins.
    Hospital staff assess gender, height, identifying marks and any clothing. But as time passes, the most obvious test -- facial recognition -- becomes increasingly difficult.
    "Because they have been in the water some days, the bodies are bloated, but otherwise intact," says Suyuti Syamsul, director at the Sultan Imanuddin Hospital.
    He's been at the hospital 24 hours a day, he tells CNN, to ensure the bodies are afforded the respect they deserve.
    This hospital is not equipped for a tragedy on this scale.
    They usually have three morticians. They now have 40 staff and 20 volunteers focused on treating the bodies. The facility's other patients look on at the growing tragedy that has unfolded in this small town.
    Temporary caskets are being hastily made, some literally around the corner from where the bodies are being prepared.
    Respect
    Syamsul says they will have 162 coffins, one for each victim of the doomed flight. He says they are paying the victims every respect possible.
    Representatives of six different religions pray over the bodies before they leave. The victim's religion may not be known, but customs must still be observed.
    "Their time on earth is over," says Pastor Sirdjon Palace. "So many of our prayers are for the family. We ask God to receive their bodies and give the families strength."
    A further six bodies arrived at Sultan Imanuddin hospital throughout Friday. Suyuti says 14 bodies have now come through the hospital so far.
    As the victims' remains are transported out by ambulance to be flown to Surabaya -- for formal identification by distraught families -- the hospital team takes a breath but just for a moment.
    The search, to the south of Pangkalan Bun, is slow going, hampered by rough seas, which complicate the job done by divers.
    With only ten victims recovered from the Java sea so far, there remain many more that will come through these gates, to be tended to by the small but dedicated group of workers here.
    On standby 24 hours a day, just waiting for the next ten-minute warning.