Pima County gains national recognition for rehydrating mummies - KTRE.com | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

Pima County gains national recognition for rehydrating mummified hands

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TUCSON, AZ (CBS5) -
The dry, arid conditions of the desert make identifying bodies found here very difficult. But the medical examiner's office in Tucson developed a technique that's gaining them national recognition.

"This jurisdiction that we serve has received more of these remains that we've seen anywhere else in any other jurisdiction in the country," said Pima County medical examiner Gregory Hess. He said while they can tell basic information from bodies found decomposed in the hot desert, specific information can sometimes only be collected from a fingerprint, which is impossible to obtain in some cases.

"The skin can mummify, which means it dries out and becomes very hard and firm and leathery and will lose its shape," Hess said.

So they've developed a technique to bring them back to life. 

They mix water with sodium hydroxide and soak the hands for several days - not too long, or they can actually dissolve. 

"Then they've been removed from the solution, kind of stretched out, rinsed off, and then typically dried for another day or so," said death investigator Gene Hernandez.

Then they can try and get a fingerprint and compare with government databases. 

"It's not uncommon to do multiple sets of these in the summertime," Hernandez said.

"Occasionally, when we do make an identification, we learn it's not who we thought it was," Hess said. He and his team recently received a national award for their work, and they're getting calls from across the country asking them about this technique. But he said what's most important is bringing closure to families.   

"We want to identify those remains so they can get back to their loved ones," Hess said.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. 

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