Professor helps identify victim 60 years after plane crash

On March 12, 1948 a Northwest Airlines plane carrying 30 people crashed into a mountain in eastern Alaska, killing all those on board and leaving behind a seemingly unsolvable mystery – at least until a GW professor stepped in.

Forensic science professor Edward Robinson was the first person to identify the remains of one of the victims using fingerprint analysis, in what experts are calling an unprecedented step for fingerprint identification on post-mortem remains.

In 1999, two commercial airplane pilots unearthed a remarkably intact human hand and arm among discovered debris in Alaska. Many scientists tried unsuccessfully to identify the body, and the parts were eventually sent to the Armed Forces DNA identification lab in Rockville, Md., because many of the crew and passengers were World War II veterans.

After a series of collaborative efforts yielded no results, one of the DNA lab’s supervisors suggested researchers call Robinson, his former forensics professor at GW, for help with the investigation.

Robinson was more than willing to lend a hand to the 60-year-old mystery, eventually extracting the victim’s fingerprints with the help of cutting-edge forensics and fingerprinting technology. This helped researchers identify the victim as Francis Joseph Van Zandt, a Roanoke, Va., native.

When Robinson received the hand, it was so decomposed and embalmed that he had to use an unusual chemical – once used to identify Hurricane Katrina victims – to try and collect an accurate fingerprint.

Robinson soaked the hand in the chemical every hour in an attempt to rehydrate the skin and lift the finger pads off the hand.

“This is probably the most momentous case I have ever been involved with because of the efforts required just to make an identification,” Robinson said.

Before coming to GW, Robinson had worked for 25 years as police officer in Arlington, spending the majority of his time on the force as a crime scene investigator. In the forensic science department, Robinson teaches six courses including crime scene investigation, firearms identification and forensic photography.

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