Lives lost and those still missing

Tito was his angel. That’s what Guillaume Peetroons said of Tito Garcia — a 34-year-old native of the Dominican Republic who helped him during a difficult period of homelessness and found him a place to live in Nivelles, south of Brussels.

Now Peetroons, 45, and other friends fear that Garcia, who worked at a support center for homeless people until several months ago, may have been a victim of the deadly terrorist attacks that rocked Brussels this week. Peetroons said Garcia hasn’t been heard from for days. “I’ve called everywhere,” he said. “He saved my life and the life of my children.”

Peetroons is one of scores of people seeking information about friends and family members unaccounted for since Tuesday’s suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and metro.

While officials have put the toll in the blasts — carried out by apparent supporters of the Islamic State — at 31 killed and about 300 wounded, they have identified only a small number of the dead so far. That has caused growing worry for friends and relatives of those reported missing.

Their agonizingly long wait reflects how difficult it is to identify bodies torn apart or burned by the shrapnel-packed bombs used by the attackers, part of a cell that has also been linked to the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

While some of the missing may be merely out of touch and may resurface in a few days, others may eventually be confirmed among the dead.

Belgian authorities — including the Interior Ministry, the Public Health Department and police — declined to comment on those missing, and said they are working to care for and identify the wounded.

The missing include a doctoral candidate at a Belgian university, a technology worker from India and a British computer programmer.

The worry about possible victims is not limited to Europe. New York residents Alexander and Sascha Pinczowski are believed to have been at the airport on Tuesday when the blasts took place. So were Justin and Stephanie Shults, an American couple living in Brussels. The young expats “had not mentioned feeling unsafe at all,” said Betty Gragg Newsom, a relative in Kentucky.

The State Department has confirmed that a number of Americans remain missing, possibly including embassy staff members, but it has declined to give details.

Many people are seeking information about friends and family members unaccounted for since the suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and metro on March 22. Hanane El Amrani hasn’t been able to reach her friend, Loubna Lafariki, since she used the metro to get to work last Tuesday. (Cléophée Demoustier for The Washington Post)

The family of David Dixon, 51, a British-born computer programmer who lived in Brussels with his partner and child, said they were anxiously awaiting word on his whereabouts. “We continue to hope for good news about David,” the family said in a statement released by the British government.

Since the Tuesday attacks, friends and family have flooded social media with notices and pleas for information. Many say they have called and visited multiple hospitals without definitive news on their loved ones.

Part of the challenge is that many of the survivors and dead may be so badly wounded or burned they can’t be easily identified.

According to Leah Groveman, a forensic DNA scientist in Las Vegas, survivors with burn and explosion wounds can be difficult for relatives to recognize because of the severe damage to their faces. Some may be unconscious.

Officials at a military hospital at Neder-Over-Heembeek in Brussels said that they are treating 14 people in the hospital burn unit, including five in intensive care, who were apparently wounded in the bomb blasts Tuesday.

An academic hospital in Leuven is treating 24 people hurt in the attacks, half of whom are in intensive care.

When victims do not survive, forensic experts try to identify them by matching records of fingerprints, teeth or DNA to the bodies.

Sometimes, the experts must resort to seeking secondary information, such as whether a victim had undergone surgery, was wearing jewelry or carrying certain possessions. But assembling that information is vastly harder when the victims come from all over the world.

David Ranson, deputy director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Melbourne, Australia, said it is often more difficult for authorities to identify victims in “open disasters” such the one in Belgium than in some other kinds of tragedies.

According to Ranson, authorities start off investigations in “closed disasters” — such as an airliner crash — with valuable information, including the number of people affected and their identities. In “open disasters,” which occur in public places such as subways, officials usually lack that information, making it harder to match remains with identities.

“It’s a bit like a tsunami,” Ranson said. “There are a lot of people who have may have been in that area . . . but you don’t actually know who was there when the device went off.”

Ranson said the identification process can take weeks and usually concludes with a legal determination based on the evidence available. That may mean a long, excruciating wait for those hoping for news of their friends or family members.

At the site of a makeshift memorial in Brussels on Thursday, photos of 30-year-old Johanna Altegrim were posted in several locations, with a request for information about her fate. The posters were carefully slipped into plastic sleeves to withstand the rain.

Noemie Jadoulle, Cleophee Demoustier and James McAuley in Brussels contributed to this report.

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