DNA and the Earhart mystery

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LISA MULLINS: Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart? That's one of the big mysteries of the 20th century. Amelia Earhart was a pioneering pilot � the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In June of 1937 she embarked on her historic flight around the world. But on July 2nd she and her navigator vanished somewhere over the Pacific and they have never been found. But now a group in Wilmingham, Delaware thinks it may have some clues. It's hoping to do DNA testing on some items that were found on an uninhabited Pacific island. Richard Gillespie is executive director of TIGHAR which is The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Where is the tiny island where you think Amelia Earhart met her end?

RICHARD GILLESPIE: Well it's one of the most remote places on earth. Go to Hawaii, hang a left, and keep going for about 2000 miles. It's about 700 miles north of Samoa. To get there we usually fly to Fiji. That's 11 hours from Los Angeles and then get on an ocean going ship and travel for five days and 1000 miles. It's really out there.

MULLINS: So who went out there?

GILLESPIE: We've been out there nine times over the past 21 years. I've led the expeditions. We have a crew that usually averages 12 to 15 people.

MULLINS: But did you go specifically to that little archipelago? I mean did you have any reason to go there?

GILLESPIE: Absolutely. This is where the US Navy thought Earhart ended up in 1937 based on the navigational logic behind the last radio message that she gave the coast guard before she went off the air and disappeared.

MULLINS: And that's when she said she was running out of fuel?

GILLESPIE: Well she never said she was running out of fuel. That's one of the many, many myths about this. What she said was fuel is running low and that can mean a lot of things. It can mean that I expect the engine to quit any minute or it could mean in this 24-hour endurance, a flight with 24 hours of endurance, we've now passed the 19th hour so that we're into our reserve and fuel is running low.

MULLINS: Well now let me question you in terms of what you have found there that makes you believe that this actually is part of the remains of Amelia Earhart because we know that over the years there have been many people who have claimed to know what happened to her and have found evidence. What have you found?

GILLESPIE: We started the excavation in 2001 and continued in 2007 and we've recovered artifacts from that site that are consistent with an American woman of the 1930s. We found the remains of a woman's compact, a zipper that was manufactured in Meadville, Pennsylvania between 1933 and 1936, the remains of a bottle of hand lotion. But none of that is smoking gun evidence. Some of those pieces may have been capable of yielding DNA had we been careful in 2007 to handle them carefully so as not to contaminate them. But in 2007 it wasn't possible to recover DNA from touched objects. You had to have a piece of bone or tooth. Today you can. So the technology kind of got ahead of us there. So that's why we're gong back to continue to dig at the site hoping to recover more artifacts that can� We'll be very careful this time to preserve whatever DNA is there.

MULLINS: So you're going back to the archipelago. When are you going and what are you going to look for?

GILLESPIE: We're leaving in May of 2010. We'll be gone about a month. We'll continue our excavation of the castaway camp site. Only about 5% of it has been excavated so far. We hope to complete the campsite and we hope to recover artifacts carefully preserving what DNA is there. Fortunately we now have something to compare it to. The Earhart family had always resisted providing a DNA sample understandably because the investigations of the Earhart disappearance have been such speculative tabloid nonsense for so long that they didn't want the Earhart DNA profile kicking around. But we've pushed the investigation to the point promising enough so that they have provided a DNA sample but�

MULLINS: So you just have to get some of her DNA now?

GILLESPIE: We have to get something to compare to the DNA provided by the family. But having that sample means that � from a DNA standpoint � now we know what we're looking for.

MULLINS: It sounds like you have a lot more investigating to do and hopefully some illuminating findings about what did happen to Amelia Earhart, the famed American pilot who went down apparently somewhere over the Pacific Ocean and you hope to find evidence that you know exactly where the island was. Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Thank you.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.