Nearly a century after they perished aboard the luxury liner Titanic, three mystery passengers who were laid to rest in unmarked graves -- including a two-year-old baby boy -- may finally be identified by Canadian researchers through DNA testing.
Scientists will partially exhume the remains of a woman in her 30s, a young man and a baby, whose graves in Halifax, Nova Scotia
, are marked simply No. 281, No. 240, and No. 4., in a bid to match bone fragments to extended family members who instigated the project.
"We're looking at this as scientists and we're really going to be looking at the quality of the bone," said Alan Ruffman
, a marine geophysicist in Halifax. "But I think all of us will find it's going to be quite moving to be close to history."
The "unsinkable" Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in frigid North Atlantic waters off Canada's east coast on April 15, 1912, taking about 1,500 lives as it went down.
Despite a two-month recovery effort, most of the bodies were never found. Of those that were recovered, 150 were buried in cemeteries in the east coast city of Halifax. Forty-three of the passengers and crew laid to rest in Halifax have never been identified.
Weeks after the ship sank, Halifax officials posted a list of the recovered bodies, with names where available, and included details such as height, sex, descriptions and any possessions found on them. Some were claimed by relatives the rest buried in three cemeteries across the city.
While DNA analysis should offer final proof of the victims' identities, the scientists are also relying on poignant clues provided by the families such as information that one of the dead carried a watch fob with an inscription on it.
The three passengers are unrelated. Ruffman said the baby had likely been a third-class passenger, trapped below decks with his mother when the ship sank.
"You were far better to be a first-class male on board the Titanic than a third-class woman," he said. "Third-class women, especially if you had a large brood of children and you made it up to the deck too late, you were out of luck. It's a reasonable bet that this child is a third-class child."
The (identification) project began three years ago when a clergyman approached Halifax authorities on behalf of a family who believed one of the graves contained a relative. The city denied their request to put a name on the headstone, saying their evidence was inconclusive.
The priest's pitch met a sympathetic response from Canadi
an scientists who offered to conduct DNA tests on the remains.
The work has since extended to the other two graves, which were chosen because there is a "reasonable chance" of making an identification. The families involved have not been named.
Some of the families want the bodies tested to "close a nagging mystery" while others are concerned that a Catholic relative may be buried in a Protestant cemetery and did not get formal last rites, Ruffman said.
"In one case, the person's parent was left an orphan by this event and it clearly affected all their lives," Ruffman said. "For another, they'd be delighted to know this chap actually made it to shore and was buried, and they can put a name on the stone."
The partial exhumations begins on Friday and results of the DNA analysis will be known in about six months. - (Reuters)