Dr. Michael Baden Goes On the Record
World's Most Famous Forensic Pathologist Turned Away by Polish Government
GPInterview March 29, 2012
[...] it is unusual - something that I have never experienced before - where the government [of Poland] has not permitted the famil[ies] to conduct independent forensic examinations of their loved ones' remains [...] I've never heard of a body coming back to a country and the family being unable to open up a casket. I've never heard of the family not being able to get an autopsy.
Renowned American forensic pathologist prof. Michael Baden explains the errors committed during Russian investigation of April 10th, 2010 crash in Smolensk, Russia.
Interview with Dr. Michael Baden hosted by Aleksandra Rybińska, Independent Interview Program, Gazeta Polska. According to prof. Baden the autopsies of the 96 victims of the crash have not been conducted properly.
Q: Professor Baden, you are a renowned forensic pathologist, I suppose you have conducted a lot of autopsies on victims of plane crashes or even terrorists attacks. For how long have you been doing this and how many autopsies, more or less, have you conducted?
Baden: I have been a pathologist and I have been doing autopsies for 50 years. I investigated more than 15-20 airplane crashes over this time. More recently we had a terrorist attacks and I was involved with World Trade Center terrorist attack. I also investigated other terrorist attacks in other countries.
Q: Could you tell me what is the procedure usually followed after the plane crash? What kind of examinations what kind of things are done usually after a plane crash?
Baden: The procedure after the plane crash is to document all the evidence, the airplane evidence, the personnel evidence during the autopsies, to find all circumstances, because on the first day after the crash we don’t know if the crash is due to the pilot having the hurt attack, or due to a defect of the airplane, or due to a terrorist attack. So, we don’t know any of that when the bodies are found at the scene, and everything has to be collected, so the remains can be examined, the bodies can be examined, returned to the families for burial purposes and we have all the evidence we need for three months from now or a year from now, when additional information is found as to what may have caused the crash. But we don’t need to keep the bodies that long, so the bodies can be released right away to the families.
Q: So, the essential thing is to do the autopsies as quickly as possible after the crash.
Baden: Well, to do the crash scene investigation can take weeks or months after a crash; examinations - the parts of the airplane, the debris field, all the debris, is there a possibility of being a piece of a bomb in the debris. All the bodies should be autopsied in order to be able to find out if there is any human cause, like pilot having hurt attack, and also if there is a terrorist attack, whether there is any evidence in the bodies of explosive devices, carbon monoxide from a fire, lung damage from the explosion. All that can be collected within days or weeks and the bodies can be released.
Q: Concerning information that you have about the way the investigation had been conducted after the crash in Smolensk, can you say that Russians had stuck to the procedure?
Baden: I am not sure what the Russians did because I haven’t been able to find any evidence of what they did and what they turn over to the Polish authorities. I can say from the photographs and videos that the scene was cleared of the debris very quickly, too quickly to be able to find all the pieces of important evidence. In the Lockerbie crash over Scotland the debris field was searched for months for all the different parts of the airplane in order to be able to put together the airplane. And they found one fragment of the size of the finger nail in the debris that turned out to be a part of a detonation device of the bomb. That takes a lot of work at the debris field. That was not done in this case, as I can see. If a bomb is in the luggage compartment the entire luggage would have to be looked at to see if there is any fragment blown into the other luggage, if there is a luggage that looks like it was exploded, it was charring from an explosion. I have seen no mention of the luggage what was looked at in the field. And autopsy itself consists of many pieces, photographs, x-rays, microscopic slides that can be examined under the microscope, toxicology, all of which can help determine whether it was or was not an explosion because explosion does harm to the longs. A fire produces certain chemical in the lungs that are unique for fire. I’ve seen no evidence of anything being done. If it was done and turned over to the Polish authority, then there was no action taken with that evidence.
Q: Did you see the pictures of the bodies of the victims on the crash site or afterwards?
Baden: I only saw photographs of bodies and body parts at the crash site.
Q: Was it possible for you to draw any conclusions from what you saw?
Baden: One of the concerns I have from what I saw is whatever happen to the airplane, it happened at a low altitude. Most airplane crashes at low altitudes don’t cause everybody to die. There are usually some survivors in low altitude crashes, especially in the back of the airplane, where there is less impact force. Here 96 people died, which is unusual for death just due to the crash, which would suggest that may be something else had happened, like a fire, an explosive device. I didn’t see any evidence that security cameras had film that shows the crash, cameras are usually present at all the airports, especially military airports.
Q: But the airport was in a bad condition, actually the control tower was just a wooden hat that was falling apart.
Baden: However the airport was used by the military and military has to have some type of security. But also satellites have images that if there was a fire at the airplane it would be picked up. Poland belongs to NATO, so by NATO satellite for example. The photographs that should have been taken at the autopsy, if done properly, the microscopic slides to look at to see the damage to the lungs that happened; none of that has surfaced. I think what is important is to find out from the Russians officially through the governmental exchange exactly what they did with the bodies, how they identified the bodies, the extent of the autopsy, what tissues they kept. There is always tissue kept at the time of the autopsy to make microscopic slides to look at the microscopes to do the toxicology. If there was a fire on the airplane many of the victims should have inhaled carbon monoxide. That is the simple toxicology test to do. Did the Russians do that? If they did, let’s see what the results are.
Q: Actually we don’t know but we do suspect that they did not do that? But this is my next question, you came to Poland to conduct autopsy of Mr. Kurtyka and Mr. Gosiewski, and you were not allowed finally to even observe the autopsies that they have been conducting. What would be possible to detect after two years when the soft tissue is basically gone. If the Russian did not do toxicology tests and if they did not keep any kind of tissue samples, what can you do after two years?
Baden: Well, the first thing that has to be done is to find out what the Russians did and get back that material, if we have to do another autopsy. We have to find out to see if there are microscopic slides that nobody looked at for two years. This time what one can find would be any fragment of explosive device would still be present in the bodies, in the soft tissue or the bones, in the teeth.
Q: How much soft tissue is left after two years?
Baden: It varies. I exhumed bodies 40 years later and they were in perfect conditions, other people after two years can be skeletonized. A lot depends on factors we don’t control such as how much rain water gets to the casket.
Q: Could you determine the cause of death for example after two years?
Baden: Yes, you should be able to determine a cause of death by looking at the injuries to the body and the bones, and you can also determine the identification of the person. Here it is not clear to me how 96 bodies were identified. Some had the facial structure intact, so the relative could identify that person. But in the airplane crash of this nature usually the part that is hurt the most is the face and the head, because the head makes contact with the seat in the front, damaging the face. So if there is damage to the face, identifications have to be made by dental comparisons, sometimes finger prints. In the airplane crash, finger prints and dental identification can be done immediately while DNA would take time. I was told that Russians took material for DNA but I don’t know what the result was. It is very easy when 96 bodies are autopsied within a few days to make mistakes on the identification that happens in mass disasters. And the family should have the right to be sure that the body in the casket is the one that the Russian say it is. And that is why it is always permitted for the families to open caskets and look to see if the remains are of those of the loved one.
Q: Do you understand why you were not allowed to look at the body?
Baden: My understanding is that families were not allowed to look at them, the bodies were allegedly brought in sealed caskets from Russia and the Polish government did not permit many of the families to look in. That is not acceptable. Families should have the right to look at their loved ones. Then, if the families wish to have a second autopsy or another examination, they are always entitled to that. I have been in countries all over the world, where the families believed that the government was hiding something, and whether it is in Zimbabwe or Israel or Philippines, and the government may not like the outside person checking to make sure that they make it right, they never interfered with that. Family or next of kin always has the right to do what wish is of the family. In the twenty first century a body of a person no longer belongs to the state - it belongs to the family. So it is just unusual. I have never experienced before when the government is not permitting the family what is wishing to do with the body, when the body is returned to them.
Q: What we found out is that the Russians wrote in all autopsy reports multiple injuries. Is this sufficient as a cause of death or should the cause of death be more precise.
Baden: No, it is not sufficient. They should report whether there are head injuries or abdominal injuries, it should be indicated on the death certificate. But multiple injuries are sometimes put down as shorthand on the death certificate indicating a lot of injuries when they don’t want to enumerate them. But the autopsy report must enumerate them, and the autopsy report itself has to be available to the family. A family has a right to know: does my husband have any kind of diseases. That would be important for my children to know, that is the prime reason that autopsies are done. The family doctor should review the autopsy to make sure that his or her children should have any concerns about hurt disease or anything else to begin with. But in this case the family has the right to know that the body in the casket is their loved one. The only way they can do that is open the casket and look in or have physician of their choice to look in, and that was not permitted. I never heard when the body comes back to the country and the family is unable to open up the casket. I never heard of that family not being able to get autopsy reports once the autopsy investigation is over. Remember the medical examiner or pathologist doing the autopsy in a criminal case takes everything he or she needs for the purpose of the investigation. You know - blood for DNA, urine, stomach contents, brain and liver for toxicology, all that is removed by the person doing autopsy, there is nothing left in the body that they need. The body is returned to the family and the family can have the body cremated and there will be no loss to the investigation. So not permitting the family to have the bodies and to look at the bodies is unusual.
Q: Is it possible to determine even now, two years after, if the victims were even alive before the plane crashed or died due to the crash itself.
Baden: That could be done or could have been done two years ago by looking to lungs and air passages with the naked eye and under the microscope. If there was an explosion in the airplane often there will be tears in the lung that can be seen at the autopsy and specially looking under the microscope. If there was a fire on the airplane before the crash, the passages would inhale carbon monoxide. So the toxicology, the microscopic slides of the air passages can tell you whether the person was breathing after explosion or after a fire. If there were pieces of the bomb device that were blown into the person that can be identified in part by X-rays at that time, which normally is done in all airplane crashes, but there are certain things that don’t shown in the X-Ray, even aluminum does not show up well in the X-ray.
Q: So, you have to do computer tomography.
Baden: Tomography doesn’t help much, I am afraid.
Q: Those explosive devices contain chemical sometimes, and there is one theory that may be the crash was caused by the fuel-air bomb what you call a thermo-baric weapon which does leave a specific kind of injuries or kind of V shape on the lungs.
Baden: That can leave certain damage to the air cells in the lungs that would not show in tomography. Tomography is very interesting but I don’t know anybody in the United States that would use tomography when ordinary X-rays tell more for medical examiner than tomography. Any metal is much better seen on regular ordinary chest X-Rays than on tomography. If there is any damage to the lungs, X-Ray might shows while tomography two years ago (not today) would not show it.
Q: But the pieces of metal we could find even today
Baden: In regular X-ray or by dissection because things plastic or aluminum that don’t show up on X-rays. So, autopsy would have to take this into consideration and do extensive examination first of the skin front, back side to check if there is any perforation. The skin has to be broken for something to go into the body, so if there is perforation of the skin, then that area has to be dissected to see if there is some foreign body that was blown in that could be from the bomb device even though it doesn’t show on the X-ray.
Q: Mr. Gosiewski and Mr. Kurtyka have been exhumed and the autopsies have been conducted by the Polish side now and were inconclusive. Meaning they could not determine the cause of death, which is contrary to what the Russian’s pathologists wrote “multiple injuries”. Is it a bid surprising that a Polish pathologist does not find the cause of death while the Russian found immediately multiple injuries?
Baden: I think, there is some language confusion. I spoke with the lawyers and the family of Mr. Kurtyka. Both decedents had extensive fractures and injuries to the face that is a typical kind of injury in an airplane crash. If the doctors doing the autopsies have not previously done autopsies on airplane victims it wouldn’t be as apparent. But in those two cases, the Russian found extensive head and brain injuries that was the cause of death. The injuries must still be there, so why it would not be accepted today by the doctors who did the examination, I don’t know. The typical cause of death in the airplane crash when people are seat belted in the seats is head hitting the seat in the front.
Q: But as far as we know, some of the crash victims did not have any injuries at all at least any apparent injuries. Isn’t that strange?
Baden: That would be very unusual, all I know the two that were just examined, and both have been described to me as having severe head injuries. If there was no any external evidence of injury, that would be extremely unusual. Then the cause of death certainly would be in question, but that requires independent review, looking into autopsy.
Q: It does require review of all autopsies of all the victims.
Baden: Yes all. I was involved in the investigation on the explosion of the airplane. Not a terrorist attack but for insurance purposes, where the bomb went on the airplane under somebody’s seat, and a part of the bomb was in the buttocks of that person because it blew up under the seat. The whole plane crashed and forty people died who were on the airplane. Parts of the bomb were in the back of the person seating in the front, and in the front of the person who was sitting behind, and same in the side. One can recreate exactly what happened because the bomb blast took a circle of people sitting right next to where the bomb was. It wouldn’t show up in somebody who was in front of the plane or many seats away. That is why in the normal case everybody should have been autopsied and everybody should have been examined for foreign material that could have been blown into the bodies.
Q: And it could still be done today to look for foreign materials?
Baden: If there was metal in the bodies, that still will be going to be there today, yes.
Q: What else is left to do now? Obviously the whole investigation was not conducted the way it should have been. What should be done now, there should be an entirely new investigation. Should we restart from zero to be able to determine what had happened?
Baden: I think, what should be done now it should be the collection by the Polish government of everything what was done by the Russians. All the autopsy reports, all microscopic slides, all photographs, all the debris that was found in the debris field, that should be collected. That is very important because it may contain information that will help resolve what happened on the airplane; any types of security cameras or images that were taken. If NATO was not asked two years ago to go back to see if there was any fire on board of the airplane before the crash, they can still do it today.
Q: What if the Russians refuse to hand it over? What can we do if we don’t have that material that they had collected?
Baden: If the Russians refuse to hand over than most that can be done now would be to examine the bodies. You don’t want to punish families too much, so at least examine the bodies that families are agreeable to see if there is any foreign material in the bodies. Foreign material from the bomb blast, either metal or plastic will still be there.
Q: As you gave example of Lockerbie, it is enough to find just one tiny little piece of metal to elucidate what has caused the crash.
Baden: That’s right, or piece of plastic, from the timing device. If one little fragment is found in the airplane or bodies that was not present in the airplane when it took off, that is a home run that would help solve the whole case.
Q: I have one last question concerning transport of the bodies from Russia to Poland. As you just said they were in metal caskets, but Russians also placed the bodies in plastic bags, not only those that were in pieces but also those that were without apparent injuries, is that a usual method?
Baden: Keeping the body in the plastic bag turns out to keep preserve the body because it prevents ground water or rain water from getting into the body. The water is doing the most damage to the bodies. So, putting the bodies in some plastic body bag or container is appropriate within the casket. But to seal the casket when there is no health problem, you see sealing the caskets occurs when there is a potential health problem, when a casket is sent from one country to another with smallpox or with some kind of anthrax, some disease then, the sealing of caskets occur. It is very rare. To seal of the caskets and to say cannot be open - that is not appropriate at all.
Q: So, there is no logical explanation?
Baden: No, it is not logical, and all it does is it prevents the families to look. You see, there two things: one - what are the causes, but the second - how do we know if it is the right body. The family should be able to look or to have somebody look. Different limbs, do they belong to my husband or is it from somebody else who is missing the appendage in another casket.
Q: So, the Russians considered we should just have trust and faith in them.
Baden: The Russians considered their issues. They felt that the airplane has nothing to with it, because it was their airplane. That is another thing that should be done. The Russians should still have all the parts of the airplane. That has to be extensively looked at. We have airplanes in the USA from past 20 years that have crashed and they are still being examined and looked at, because it is not only this crash what is important, was there a bomb in this crash. But every time an airplane crashes, what can we learn to make sure that it doesn’t happen again with the next airplane. So, a lot of safety procedures have been developed because of examining airplane crashes. In this instance the cause of the crash if it is a mechanical one, would be looked at. But also what it would be looked at - if there is a hole, a defect in any part of the airplane because of the explosion. That can still be done today even two years later because that evidence and reconstruction of the airplane as found. But what I saw in videos of the Russians collecting the airplane parts, I thought it was not done properly. There was a lot of destruction of the plane.
Q: These are second problems. Russians said that they found all the debris but when people travelled to Smolensk privately they still were founding not only pieces of the plane but also body parts, clothing, things that belonged to the victims. Obviously they have not searched for thoroughly at all. Basically they took a plane and put something over it, so it will not get wet. But they did it after two years nearly. So, the wreckage was lying there in a rain and snow. What can we learn from the record that was practically misused in that way.
Baden: Usually they put those things in a hangar, but whatever it is you have to look at, there could be some destruction due to environmental conditions, yet it needs to be taken into account. The fact that the debris field was not fully searched so the passersby can pick up the evidence is very much inappropriate and against all conventions. Every piece of human tissue, body, every piece of clothing, every piece of the airplane, tells the story what happened, and it should be preserved. This is done in every airplane crash and if that was not done here it is all the more reason that suspicions will keep developing as it happened with the President Kennedy when the autopsy was not done right. It was suspicion and conspiracy theories developed. It took14 years, before the government of the USA made an effort really to investigate what had happened to President Kennedy. And it is two years now that proper investigation has not been done by the Polish government. What hasn’t been done, in five year, in ten years, or fifteen years it will be done because it is such a horrific catastrophe and not to have it fully investigated leaves a very deep mark against all of Polish society and the families of the victims. I think that if it isn’t done now in two years may be will be done in fifteen years. It will be less evidence available than but may be enough to figure out what happened. May be at that time the Russian government will give over, will cooperate. I don’t know, it depend how they are asked. If the Polish government says that we really do not want it, then the government of Russia does not feel that they need to give it over. If the Polish government really wants it... Unless they are protecting the fact they have manufactured the airplane? Is this Russian built airplane?
Q: Yes, this is a Russian built airplane.
Baden: So, it has to be independent investigation, even if the Russians are correct that airplane we build have nothing to do with this crash. It would be important for the independent people to verify that.
Rebinska: Thank you very much Professor Baden
Baden: Thank you.