The search for victims of the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California is getting an assist from a new, high-tech tool. Rapid DNA identification technology, invented by a Harvard trained physician, is being deployed for the first time in a disaster. For some families, the quick results are easing the agony of not knowing what happened to loved ones who went missing after the fire. Bill Whitaker reports from Paradise, a town virtually wiped out by flames, on the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, December 2 at 7:00 p.m., ET/PT on CBS.
In most mass casualty disasters, it can take months to identify remains using DNA. Butte County Sheriff and Coroner Kory Honea didn’t want families to wait that long, so he decided to see if the new technology could accelerate the process. “We’ve been very pleased with the technology, not only in terms of its ability to confirm the identities but the speed with which it’s able to do that,” Honea tells Whitaker. “The longer that process is the worse it is for the family, in my view.”
The technology was invented by Dr. Richard Selden. It separates and purifies DNA from swabs of bone or tissue. The resulting DNA profile is then compared to a relative’s sample. Dr. Selden tells Whitaker he is astonished by the results, especially considering the condition of some of the remains. “I was shocked when I saw the first remains. The kind of samples I handled, I was pretty sure wasn’t going to work,” Selden recalls. “I told our technical team, ‘Let’s do it anyway, five percent chance.’ And the first eight samples all worked perfectly.”
For more than two weeks after the Camp Fire, siblings Bonnie and Tommy Wehe didn’t know what happened to their mother Marie, who lived in the woods outside of Paradise. When they learned about the rapid identification process, the siblings provided samples of their own DNA. They soon learned the samples matched DNA from remains recovered from their mother’s truck. Tommy Wehe tells Whitaker he is grateful for the results: “It gives us peace of mind to know that we can try to get some closure.”