It is likely to take “a considerable amount of time” before the bodies of the South Africans killed in the church building collapse in Nigeria are flown home, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said on Sunday.
Updating reporters in Pretoria on the situation, he said the latest report out of that country was only 18 post-mortems had been completed on the victims of the disaster.
“In terms of the last report, they have only completed 18 post-mortems [out of 115] so far. But as soon as the process is competed, we’ll be able to repatriate.”
Radebe said government understood the frustration and anguish of families waiting for the return of the bodies of their loved ones.
Around 115 people, among them 84 South Africans, were killed and dozens trapped when a multi-storey guesthouse attached to the Synagogue Church of All Nations collapsed in Lagos on September 12.
Radebe said that of the 84 South Africans killed, the number of bodies identified to date remained 62, the same figure announced last Wednesday.
He said that in terms of Nigerian law, the South African experts who had flown to Lagos to assist could not perform post-mortems on the victims, but only act as observers.
“A post-mortem has to be performed on all deceased persons, and death certificates have to be issued, before the mortal remains can be repatriated back to South Africa,” said Radebe.
“Regrettably, this process is bound to take a considerable amount of time due to the large number of people who perished in this incident.”
Families had to prepare themselves for “a process that might go on a while longer than we would have wished”.
Radebe also warned on the condition of the remains.
“Due to the scale of the disaster, the passage of time, and the climatic conditions in Nigeria, most of the mortal remains are not in a good state.
“Out of concern for secondary trauma to the families, as well as public health considerations, government discourages family members from viewing the mortal remains.”
He said the remains would be brought to South Africa “on a single flight, properly equipped for this task”.
On arrival, they would be taken to a special facility where they could be collected by family members.
Asked how long it would be before the remains were flown home, given that only 18 post-mortems out of 115 had been performed to date, Radebe responded: “We cannot, at this moment in time, say with certainty how long this process will last. But we’ll know by the end of the week, when are we going to be repatriating South Africans.”
Radebe said the process of fingerprinting victims had been completed.
“We have reached a critical milestone in the identification of the mortal remains. The capturing of fingerprints on the deceased persons has, where possible, been completed.
“The prints are currently being run through the fingerprint databases of the department of home affairs and the SA Police Service. It should be completed by the end of the week.”
Some of the bodies would require identification through either dental records or DNA analysis.
The South African government was in contact with the Nigerian authorities and continued to seek “the speediest possible conclusion” to the process.
“So the moment we get the green light from Lagos, when they’ve completed the post mortems, we’ll know for certain when we’ll be able to repatriate [the bodies] back to South Africa.” SAPA