Crew's remains at Dover Air Force Base
DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Delaware (CNN) -- Remains from the crew of the space shuttle Columbia arrived here Wednesday afternoon for experts at the National Mortuary to begin work on identifying them, officials said.
The military C-141 aircraft carrying seven "transfer cases" landed at the base at 2:35 p.m., according to Col. Scott Wuesthoff. Six of the cases were draped in American flags, the seventh in an Israeli flag.
"On behalf of all the men and women associated with the Dover team ... our thoughts and prayers go out to you, the folks at NASA, and particularly the families associated with those that lost the national heroes," Wuesthoff said.
Wuesthoff said the seven cases were only a symbolic display in honor of the seven crew members who died when the shuttle broke up on re-entry Saturday, and not an indication that there were remains from each of the seven bodies.
Lt. Olivia Nelson, Dover AFB spokeswoman, said there is no way to determine right now whose remains are at the base.
"We know that we have a certain amount of remains, as far as the dissociated remains themselves, but there is no way, until the analysis is conducted, to know whose remains we have," she said.
Earlier in the day, the Israel Defense Forces announced that NASA had informed an Israeli representative in Houston that the remains of Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, had been identified.
There are conflicting reports whether NASA confirmed that to be true.
The astronauts killed in the shuttle disaster were commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; payload commander Michael Anderson; mission specialists David Brown, Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla; and Ramon.
Wuesthoff said when the military transport plane touched down at Dover, a chaplain, an honor guard and other officials boarded the aircraft and said an interfaith prayer beside the cases. A color guard stood outside the plane flying American and Israeli flags.
DNA to help identify
The cases were then loaded onto a hearse and taken to the base mortuary, whose staff also worked on the identification of the seven crew members of the space shuttle Challenger and the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
William Zwicharowiski, director of the mortuary, said it will take time to identify the remains of the Columbia crew because "we have a lot less to work with."
"We have a team of professionals waiting to identify the remains, we have forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists, dentists, a team of mortuary specialists," he said.
"And DNA, for example, takes some time, and that's probably going to be our primary source of identification."
Zwicharowiski said he understands the families of the victims want the remains returned as quickly as possible, and that the staff would do everything possible to adhere to religious traditions.
Ramon was Jewish, although his wife said the family was not strictly religious. Jewish tradition calls for burial as quickly as possible after death, usually interpreted as within 24 hours.
Zwicharowiski said a rabbi accompanied the cases on the military plane from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where all the remains found before Tuesday were taken.
The rabbi, as well as military escorts, accompanied the cases into the mortuary and will remain with them for the duration, he said.
No family members were present at the base Wednesday, Nelson said.