Originally published in The Los Angeles Times.
January 21, 2005
By DANIEL LOVERING, Associated Press Writer
WAT BANG MUANG, Thailand — As a ringside physician in the United States, Dr. Paul Wallace spends much of his time patching up the bruised, lacerated faces of professional boxers. In Thailand, he’s using his medical skills to identify bodies of those killed by the tsunami.
The plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills, Calif., is helping Thailand’s leading forensics expert identify dozens of corpses by digitally reconstructing their faces at a makeshift morgue miles from where the towering waves crashed ashore Dec. 26.
“I deal with facial trauma,” said Wallace, best known for halting a 2003 heavyweight championship bout between Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko because of a cut over Klitschko’s left eye — a decision that allowed Lewis to keep the title.
More than 5,300 people died in Thailand when massive ocean swells, powered by an underwater earthquake, swept southern coastlines. About 3,100 others remain
missing. Many victims were foreigners vacationing at the area’s renowned beach resorts.
Hundreds of corpses have been stored in refrigerated containers at two Buddhist temples where they are being examined by international forensics teams and Thailand’s top pathologist, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand. Interpol has opened an extensive disaster victim identification center in nearby Phuket.
Many bodies are badly decomposed, making identification difficult. Technicians are using photos, dental records, fingerprints and DNA tests.
Wallace, also a medical director for the World Boxing Council, volunteered to assist in Thailand’s tsunami recovery effort after having visited the country last October for a boxing convention in Phuket. He started work this week at one of the temples, Wat Bang Muang, and is scheduled to leave next week.
Around the temple, bodies are kept in more than two dozen refrigerated trailers and wooden coffins are stacked high. The air reeks of formaldehyde and rotting corpses.
Wallace said his ringside experience treating the cut eyes of boxers, together with the reconstructive and cosmetic surgery he has performed on other patients, has helped him in analyzing facial features.
“The job that I’m doing is to help recreate a facial structure, a facial image,” he said. “What we do is to take a picture of the corpse and then we manipulate it, and I work on eyelids and on the landmark things you would see.”
Wallace said he adds facial features — a nose, eyes, teeth — to the digital images using a laptop computer to produce pictures that victims’ relatives might recognize.
The 50-year-old doctor, wearing green scrubs and sunglasses, said he has digitally reconstructed the approximate facial features of more than 100 of the best-preserved corpses. More than 12 bodies have already been identified using various forensic techniques, he added.
“Hopefully, there will be two or three images that we can come up with to allow some prospective family member to say with some degree of imagination that that’s it,” he said.