Grief turns to frustration for family awaiting IDs of victims of fiery crash

Nearly two weeks after an 86-year-old man and his granddaughter died in a fiery car crash on La. 67 in East Feliciana Parish, their family is seething because the bodies have still not been returned to Liberty, Mississippi, for burial.

“We just want to know what do we have to do to get these bodies back,” Lydia Blalock said Tuesday afternoon.

But officials say that in cases involving charred remains it could take as long as eight weeks to make the proper identifications.

Blalock’s father-in-law, William Blalock, 86, and his granddaughter Ariel Foster, 19, died on July 24 after a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler. Blalock’s 2010 Kia Optima crossed the median while heading north on La. 67 toward Mississippi before the big rig driven by Sidney Rollins III, 46, of Liberty, slammed into it.

Diesel fuel leaking from a storage tank on the big rig intensified the flames, leading to searing heat that burned the bodies beyond recognition and rendered moot traditional methods of identification such as fingerprint and dental record comparison, Sgt. Kevin Garig, of the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday.

Nothing in the car, such as driver’s licenses or credit cards that could help in identification, survived the fire.

So, officials are relying on DNA testing to confirm what the family is convinced of: that the two bodies pulled from the burning wreckage are William Blalock and Foster.

Laura DeJohn has been acting East Feliciana Parish coroner since the death of the former coroner, her husband, Dr. Mike DeJohn, who died June 20 following a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. DeJohn said Tuesday that she is expecting results Friday from the DNA testing being conducted at the State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge.

But that is small consolation to Blalock, who said the delay in burying their loved ones is wearing on the family, many of whom traveled to the small Mississippi town two weeks ago for the funeral and have not left.

“Can you imagine losing someone and not being able to get them buried for this long,” she said. “It’s devastating.”

Blalock said the family would have felt better about the length of time it is taking for the identification if officials had been upfront with them about the timeline.

“If they told us two weeks ago it might take three weeks, we could have gone home and come back for the services,” Blalock said.

DeJohn initially declined to talk with The Advocate about the case, other than to say she is doing the best she can, and working as fast as she can, to return the bodies to the family. “I am expediting everything and calling all the favors I can,” she said.

In a second phone interview, DeJohn conceded the delay was due to the DNA testing required to ensure the bodies are properly identified.

“I sure would hate it if this happened to me and somebody buried the wrong person in the wrong grave,” she said.

The family even reached out to legislators in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, where Lydia Blalock is from, to try to get some answers. DeJohn said she has gotten some calls from legislators — she said she could not remember who called her — asking why the process is taking so long. She said she gave them the same answers she has given everyone else.

Immediately after the crash, Garig said, DeJohn and her office combed through the remains of the burned car, looking for any items that could identify the bodies.

When that fell through, DeJohn authorized the Louisiana Forensic Center in Lafayette, the company the Coroner’s Office contracts with to perform autopsies, to withdraw some DNA for testing, Garig said.

Another reason for the delay, Garig said, is that, in general, autopsies are not performed until three to four days after bodies are turned over to the Coroner’s Office.

The DNA sample was withdrawn Thursday and turned over to the Crime Lab on Friday, Garig said.

“I understand they’re upset and I know that they’re grieving and I really hate the fact that it’s taking this long, ’cause I couldn’t imagine if something happened to my family like that,” Garig said. “If it was the same circumstances, I would probably feel the same way. But she is doing the best she can to get it done.”

Dr. Beau Clark, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner, said that when identifying bodies, the first form of identification is visual, followed by fingerprinting and dental records.

DNA testing, he said, is the fallback option.

Given the circumstances surrounding this case, Clark said, it is not unusual that the bodies have not yet been returned to the family, given the charred state of the bodies, the time it generally takes to perform DNA testing and the fact that coroner’s offices generally do not perform autopsies right away to allow for any contagious diseases in the body to die in the cooler.

“Besides what you see on ‘CSI’ on television, DNA takes a long time,” Clark said, noting such tests can sometimes take four to eight weeks.

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.