The state forensic anthropologist who's been working with the remains of the unidentified circus fire victims exhumed in Windsor last month told NBC Connecticut the victims’ bones are more fragile than she'd hoped.
“The remains are obviously old. So, time was a factor,” Dr. Kristen Hartnett-McCann explained Monday. “The remains were subjected to water over 75 years, so there was some degree of water damage to the bones that made them fragile and breakable.”
The Chief Medical Examiner Office’s goal is to successfully extract DNA from the bones that were exhumed to compare the DNA profiles of the two victims to that of Grace Fifield's granddaughter.
Fifield went to the circus on that July afternoon in 1944, where a fire broke out and killed 168 people.
Fifield's body was never found. But the question is if she’s one of the two unnamed women who have been resting at the Northwood Cemetery in Windsor for 75 years.
“I have no doubt that at some point somehow somebody will be able to get DNA out of the bones,” said Hartnett-McCann, “hoping that it's our Connecticut lab that does it in our first shot, but we have options.”
Hartnett-McCann's team still has steps to take before they can begin the actual DNA extraction process, and given the fragile state they found the bones in, the entire process could take months.
“It depends on the quality of the DNA we're able to extract, depending on how many times they have to attempt it. At minimum we're looking at six weeks, but likely much longer. I usually tell people a couple of months,” she said.
Right now the team is working with femurs, and they also extracted teeth they can test if that doesn't work.
Additionally, Hartnett-McCann said one of the two bodies exhumed in September is likely not the person they're looking for, because she appears to be of a different race.
The coroner who filled out a death certificate for that victim, known since then as 4512, described her as an African-American female.
In court a couple of months ago, the state's chief medical examiner, who motioned to exhume the two victims to extract their DNA, said the burns they sustained would have made it very difficult to determine their race. It is possible for either of them to be Grace Fifield, who was Caucasian.
When the bodies were exhumed, Hartnett-McCann says something stood out to her about victim 4512's remains.
“One of the females had traits in the cranium that tended to look like African-American traits,” Hartnett-McCann explained.
Her team has not begun the DNA extraction process to confirm this, but she says it appears the other unnamed victim, known as 2109, is more likely to be a match with the missing Grace Fifield's living granddaughter.
“We still would like to have a DNA profile on hand. That way if in the future we need to do more comparison or someone else comes forward, you know we don't have to re-exhume her.”