By Richard Alleyne
12:00AM GMT 09 Dec 2000
THE coroner in the Marchioness pleasure-boat tragedy on the Thames was condemned as a “butcher” yesterday and urged to resign during an inquiry into how the victims were identified.
Angela Bensamenn, 56, whose son Dean Palmer was one of the 51 people killed in the 1989 tragedy, vented her anger as Dr Paul Knapman defended his decision to cut off victims’ hands to take fingerprints.
The hearing was told that the hands of Elsa Garcia, a 25-year-old language student, had been lost. They were discovered four years later at the bottom of a refrigerator in Dr Knapman’s mortuary and destroyed.
Mrs Bensamenn, who now lives in New Zealand, stood up and shouted: “Your mortuary is so dirty that it took four years to find a child’s hands. You are a butcher.”
Dr Knapman, the coroner for Inner West London, was giving evidence at the end of the second week of the latest inquiry into the collision between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle dredger. During the hearing, overseen by Lord Justice Clarke, the coroner was accused of “arrogance” and lack of concern for relatives’ feelings.
He admitted that 25 of the victims had had their hands removed for identification purposes without relatives knowing, even though it was not necessary in all cases. The details would have been an “unnecessary burden” to loved ones.
Hands are sometimes cut off and taken to more advanced laboratories if other attempts to take fingerprints fail. It was a last resort, Dr Knapman said. But he admitted that 12 of the Marchioness victims were in the process of being identified by their dental records when their hands were removed.
Dr Knapman said: “All decisions were taken with the best of intentions and I deeply regret that some aspects of the aftermath have caused upset. I would just like to say how very sorry I am.”
But relatives said it was “too little, too late”. Billy Gorman, whose sister-in-law Carmella died in the accident, said: “I am appalled at his arrogance. If he will not resign, we ask the Home Secretary to suspend him.”