Walking Among the Dead - Part 2

July 03, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

      Back to the beginning

While I journeyed first to Washington, DC and the Pentagon and then on to the huge military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base 130 miles away in Delaware, up at Gander,Newfoundland, crews were erecting large canopies over a huge, long swath left by the skidding, burning crash. When the wreckage fires were extinguished, they would melt the snow with industrial fuel-fed heaters, then search and recovery teams would mark off the site with a huge grid of string and stakes and commence the search for each fragment and body.

Each body would be carefully moved into a body bag, then into a transfer case – actually a metal coffin – and then flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. At Dover, each transfer case would be moved into a separate hearse for the short ride to the mortuary where it was, again, moved into a cold chamber to await processing.

The Department of Defense mortuary at Dover AFB, which has since been replaced, was the largest mortuary in the Dept of Defense; a huge building divided into separate connecting spaces, each with small rooms clustered off them. There was the huge in-processing area where first, the bags were opened and the contents phographed by someone on an overhead stage as the forensic pathologist in charge would dictate some preliminary directions.

Then the body bags were x-rayed from top to bottom so that every little fragment inside would be located, all the contents of the bag were inventoried and a set of records begun. If possible the jaws are pieced back together and dental films are made. All this time, the body is accompanied by a single person, a volunteer, who makes certain that no fragments are left behind, no papers go missing or no step gets skipped.

At this point the body went to the dental identification team where dental info, jaw fragments and x-rays were used to establish an identity. This was a long, time intensive effort, requiring hours of referring to written records and x-ray films, trying to match jaw fragments against ante-mortem records. Once identified, the bodies went for a forensic autopsy and then in a last heartbreaking step went to the uniform room where a complete uniform with all the badges of rank and medals displayed was laid in place over the body bag.

My role was to try my newly developed system to sort the database of records, to speed up finding the correct films to review. The system worked perfectly; seconds after after each body bag came into the section, the examiner had the correct ante-mortem records in hand. From a professional standpoint, that 10 days was a uncompromising success. Although the success at this trial made a great and obvious difference in my career, the impact on my life was partially hidden and much more substantive.

But I wasn't prepared for what I actually saw when we began unzipping the bags. These were not bodies any more; they were random assortments of torn up limbs, transected torsos, crushed skulls, even sheets of skin left as the skeletons were dissembled and the bones avulsed from the body by the force of the impact. Some bodies were burnt, crisped up into the 'fighter's pose' caused by the contraction of muscles from the heat; some were wrapped in wire or merged with a sheet of aluminum skin that had been melted around their bodies.

There was no chance to react. From the moment the bodies started arriving we were overwhelmed with work. There were probably about two hundred people working at the mortuary site; the permanent staff augmented by others drawn from area bases and special teams, like us, assembled from around the US. about twelve of us in the identification section and every step had to be repeated twice and verified and eventually signed off so that there was no possible error in the identification. We started at 7 AM and worked until whatever remains that had arrived that day were completely processed – twelve to fourteen hours.

When we took breaks, they were usually in specific areas that had been set up and staffed with volunteers from the air base community. Their role was to stuff us with coffee and cake and talk to us if we wanted; anything for a little break from what we were seeing. It was bitterly cold outside and not much shelter from the winds. There was a lot of emotional pressure to finish, the families could not start their grieving process until the bodies had been processed, identified and released and there was so much to do under the constant worry to not make a mistake.

The groups of workers from each section kept together during the day working in concert at similar tasks and then taking breaks when some halt in the processing chain meant there were no bodies to process. This constant presence and support of the others in the team kept me, and probably others, from reacting overtly to the situation.

Mental health professionals roamed the area, watching, looking for signs that anyone was having just too much trouble dealing with the number of bodies and the amount of destruction. If you stood by yourself for too long, eventually some one of these people would approach and ask you directly if you were all right.

The crash was huge front page news and the fence at edge of the base only 100 yards from the mortuary was lined with tv microwave trucks and cameramen and reporters watched intently whenever anyone walked outside to get to the dining tent. News helicopters had been hovering high in the air just outside the fence hoping to catch a shot of the transfer cases being carried in or out and so the Army erected camouflage netting over the entire unloading area.

Every hotel was filled with news people and the entire team had been ordered not to speak about the operation, not even a casual remark, outside the work area. When we left the base for supper and to go to hotels, anywhere we stopped we were dogged by people wanting to ask questions and so our group just was forced casual non-work conversation anytime we were in public to keep reporters from spinning casual remarks into stories. .

The work went on for perhaps eight or ten days, the number of remains returned steady at first and then dwindling until at last the chief said the last bit had been recovered and the operation in Gander up in Newfoundland closed and the site was bulldozed repeatedly, burying anything left deep into the ground, safe from scavenger animals and souvenir hunters.

The end of the operation was startlingly sudden. One day we were working hard; the next day, we were done. The paperwork done, the last identifications certified, we packed up everything, loaded trucks with the personal gear and headed on back, first to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a final debriefing and 'lessons learned' session and then on home, me to California.

But, nothing was over.



Part 3


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