Honouring Humanity- Senior Sergeant McPhail, Disaster Victim Identification

The ongoing global pandemic has highlighted the work of humanitarian organisations around the world. The United Nations estimates that 274 million people will require humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. Throughout this year, we will celebrate the selfless acts of humanity by a select number of individuals while appreciating the ongoing work of thousands of humanitarian workers across the globe. 

When New Zealand Detective Sergeant Richard McPhail headed to the holiday resort island of Phuket, Thailand it was not as a tourist. His job was to help identify the victims of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami as part of an international Disaster Victim Identification Team (DVI) as bodies were brought to a converted monastery.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami

On 26 December 2004, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered an international humanitarian disaster. A 1,600-kilometre-long fault line ruptured towards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, releasing energy on the Earth’s surface equivalent to an estimated 1,500 atomic weapons of the type used on Hiroshima.

The seismic waves from the earthquake were felt across the globe, while the sudden seabed rise displaced an estimated 30 cubic kilometres of water, which then radiated across the Indian Ocean in a giant tsunami. Large waves some 24-30 metres in height formed as the tsunami neared coastlines, before travelling up to 13 kilometres inland, devastating everything in their path. The disaster took seven hours to unfold as the tsunami spread from Sumatra to the Arabian Peninsula and the East African coast. 

The south-western coastline of Thailand had been hit by a huge wall of water which had engulfed structures and people alike. Popular tourist destinations including Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands, and the resort towns of Khao Lak and Ao Nang were devastated by a series of tidal waves, with the final Thai casualty figures reaching 5395 confirmed deaths (including foreign tourists), 8457 injured, and 2,817 missing.

Most Devastating Tsunami in History

Estimates of the death toll range from 227,898 to 275,000, making this the most devasting tsunami in history. A further 125,000 people were injured, 43,000 were declared missing, while 1.7 million were displaced by the disaster. The economic cost was also high – the Maldives lost approximately 45 percent of its gross domestic product, while Indonesia’s $4.5 billion economic loss equated to the entire GDP of the Aceh Province. In Sri Lanka, while the fishing industry was devastated, boat building became a boom industry.

Global Humanitarian Response

The global humanitarian response included $14 billion in aid. New Zealand’s response included government personnel, civilian aid agencies and New Zealand media and individuals who provided, assisted with, or supported humanitarian relief efforts. Detective Sergeant McPhail was already experienced in body recovery and identification in New Zealand as part of his work with the New Zealand Police, and in 2002 he was a foundation member of the New Zealand Police National Disaster Victim Identification Unit. Once in Phuket, he discovered that the force of the tsunami had caused severe impact injuries which often made visual identification of victims impossible. Instead, dental records, fingerprints and DNA analysis were used to ensure the prompt and correct identification of individuals.

McPhail was one of more than 2,000 DVI personnel from 31 nations who helped Thai authorities to identify and repatriate almost 3,000 victims in the twelve months following the disaster. While the technical work was crucial to the success of the identification work, McPhail was always conscious of the need to ensure that the human remains were always treated with dignity.

New Zealand Special Service Medal (Asian Tsunami)

On the first anniversary of the earthquake, the New Zealand Government announced the institution of the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Asian Tsunami). This award recognised relief, recovery, or reconstruction work by New Zealanders in the aftermath of the disaster – over 7 days during the two months immediately after the tsunami, or 14 days over the first year of the recovery and reconstruction work. The ribbon of this medal has eleven vertical stripes of equal width of red, white, blue, orange, green, yellow, green, orange, blue, white, and red. These colours represent the national flags of those countries affected by the tsunami.

In March 2006 awards of the NZSSM (Asian Tsunami) were made to 163 members of the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Defence Force, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, civilians and representatives from aid agencies and New Zealand media. All the recipients had been involved in relief efforts in the Aceh Province of Indonesia, on Phuket and in Sri Lanka in the first two months following the tsunami, including the location of missing New Zealanders, the identification of victims, and a variety of other forms of service.

Most difficult and hazardous conditions imaginable

Detective Sergeant McPhail was amongst the first New Zealanders to receive the NZSSM (Asian Tsunami). Prime Minister Helen Clarke praised the dedication of the medal recipients, who had worked in some of the most difficult and hazardous conditions imaginable. ‘The risk of aftershocks, the dangers of disease and infection, the extensive – and in some instances complete – devastation of affected areas, and the trauma of treating the injured, of recovering bodies, and identifying victims presented the most harrowing physical and psychological challenges.’

Senior Sergeant McPhail Q.S.M.

McPhail was involved in further DVI work during his career with the New Zealand Police, including the identification of victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia and the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. Senior Sergeant Richard McPhail received the Queen’s Service Medal in 2012 for his services to the New Zealand Police and the community. The citation for the award noted ‘his high standards of leadership, composure and professionalism in very difficult circumstances at both the national and international level.’

Dead people can’t hurt you

Following his retirement from the New Zealand Police in 2016, McPhail reflected on his experiences of disaster victim identification: ‘I’ve done enough of that work. Major disaster work is very rewarding where you are restoring people to their loved ones, but there’s a limit to the time that you want to do it.’ While ‘dead people can’t hurt you’, he found that ‘dealing with the family and the emotional stuff that is the hard thing to do.’

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.