One forensic expert told the Irish Examiner that the State has dealt with mass death situations before but not historic ones.
“There has been the likes of Air India, Whiddy, Buttevant, Stardust and most recently Carrickmines,” said a forensic expert.
The Air India bombing off the coast of Cork in June 1985 resulted in the death of 329 people. Of those, 132 bodies were recovered. The recovery operation involved the Irish Navy, emergency services and gardaí, while autopsies were conducted at Cork University Hospital.
Before that, there was the Buttevant train crash in Cork in August 1980, in which 18 people were killed, and the Whiddy explosion in January 1979, which resulted in the death of 50 people with 27 bodies recovered.
Most recently, the fire in Carrickmines in October 2015 claimed 10 lives, including five children. Sources said the identification process in that case was “very difficult”.
The 1981 Stardust disaster in Artane, Dublin, claimed the lives of 48 young people. Five unidentified bodies were exhumed in January 2007 and sent to Britain for DNA analysis.
“The Stardust exhumation was the closest thing in Ireland in recent times to what would be involved here,” said the forensic expert.
Experts say any decision to exhume and examine the remains face a number of challenges.
The first is logistics. The site would have to be excavated and a facility would need to be set up nearby to assemble the remains.
Sources said it was highly likely the remains would have degraded and dispersed and would have to be linked to individual children.
Gardaí would use the Disaster Victim Identification system so as to enable a systematic approach to gathering, logging, and assembling remains.
The second challenge, the biggest one, is the technical job — that of generating DNA profiles from the bones.
Sources are uncertain if Forensic Science Ireland has the technology for it.
But speaking on RTÉ News at One yesterday, Dr Geraldine O’Donnell, head of DNA at FSI, said they could use mitochondrial DNA analysis.
She said there was “a possibility” it could work, but stressed that attempting identification was “not very straightforward” given the remains were from at least 50 to 60 years ago.
Sources said the State might have to go abroad for the technology. It is also unclear if FSI has the resources and staff available to do the work.
The third challenge is creating a reference sample. Experts said the process of extracting DNA from remains will be of little use unless there are reference samples — from the close relatives of those believed to have died at Tuam — in order to confirm identity.
Garda sources said the whole thing would be “uncharted waters” for them. “This is body identification at an industrial level,” said one senior garda.
While the number of children put into the underground chambers at Tuam is unknown, some 796 children died at the home between 1925 and 1961.
Sources said there are international companies that could do the logistical and technical work.
Dr O’Donnell said it took a decade to identify the remains in 9/11, which she considered was not “as complicated” as Tuam.
She said the biggest unknown factor with Tuam was that all the relatives might not come forward, making identification impossible.
The pressing issue for gardaí is whether or not the coroner for north Galway forms an opinion that some of the deaths were unnatural or suspicious (such as neglect) rather than natural.
“If the coroner suspects suspicious elements then we have an obligation to investigate,” said one senior Garda source.
“We don’t have anything to investigate at the moment because there’s no crime, and even if there was, there’s no one to prosecute.”
Other Garda sources said it was highly unlikely evidence would be found of a third-party involvement, such as deliberate neglect, assault or even homicide.
Forensic experts share this view, bar a case involving a violent act like strangulation, and believe it would be almost impossible to find evidence of neglect.
Dr O’Donnell said it would be “very, very difficult” to tell anything about how the babies died.
She added: “If a decision is made to exhume, the process is going to take a very long time, it’s going to be very costly and at the end of it, we may not get all the answers that we’re looking for.”
Even if there is no suspected criminality, some Garda sources said they could be asked by the coroner to assist with exhumation and identification.
“The best we could do in this situation, to bring some closure to relatives, is identification, if we technically can do that,” said one garda.