Walking Among the Dead

July 04, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Have you ever seen a dead person? Most people haven't, except perhaps at a traditional wake where the body, all primped and prepared, looks like it is alive but sleeping. No, not that kind of dead. Not even the kind of just-dead person that one might see in the few minutes before emergency vehicles come and whisk them to somewhere more private. That kind of dead look smaller, often like a heap of rags, as if something important had escaped from the body envelope. The religious think that the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of Life or some other mysterious force has fled the body but we really know that the body is relaxed totally. That every tiny muscle fibril has given up any effort in anticipation of decay and so the body slumps down.

Even that kind of dead is not what I'm referring to. I am asking if you've ever seen a dead person who has been torn apart by explosion or brute force, involuted, the head crushed, perhaps even the entire body burnt into the fighter's pose – distorted so far from what we think of as a person that your mind cannot easily accept what your eyes are seeing. That is the kind of dead person I mean. Have you ever seen this kind of dead person?

A bunch of years ago I was working on a rather arcane bit of applied research looking at the most banal of subjects - ways to predict the need for dental care among a large population by reading only a small sample of x-rays. While the study was very successful, another discovery was quite startling. Because of the unique system of coding we developed and its embodiment in a computer program, , even a small small bit of dental information, sometimes a single tooth, would be allow a large database to be reordered in a second or so so that the most likely identity would be at the top.

This had enormous repercussions in disaster management where it was a seriously tedious chore to identify individual bodies from a large population of missing. (The FBI system had a system that didn't work well and was inaccurate.) Without much effort we added some physical descriptors, height, weight, gender, distinguishing marks, etc to the system – always allowing for estimation error. We began doing demonstrations at large meetings where we would ask the attendees to fill out mark-sense forms about themselves and, while they watched, scanned the data into an existing database. Then we would pick a person at random from the audience and ask for some information. By the time anyone got to the 3d or 4th piece of information, I could tell them who they were. The system worked well; it was excruciatingly fast – thousands of records per second - and never ever failed to bring the most likely matches to the top, usually the first one on the list.

I was very pleased, obviously; something I had created was actually not just grist for the publication mill or another addition to policies and procedures but an actual working useful tool that filled a need. Honestly I never expected what would come next.

My family and I were living in family quarters on The Presidio of San Francisco. One December night, in fact in the middle of the night, the phone rang. The caller identified himself as calling from the 'Situation Room at the Pentagon' and told me to 'stand by for a call from General' XXXX. At 3 in the morning I was startled, thought this was perhaps a joke, but sat awake by the phone waiting anyway. Perhaps 30 minutes later the phone rang again, this time a much more authoritative voice, the General identified himself, and then asked me to explain how my system worked.

I did so, then he said that there was a 'situation' and that I should pack field clothes and equipment for an indefinite stay, go to the closest airport and get to the Pentagon in Washington, DC. No travel orders, no written authorization, just go. This 'situation' was, as I learned later, that a DC-8 charter carrying 256 passengers and crew had crashed just after takeoff from Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the passengers were members of the 101st Airborne Division, who were assigned as a peace-keeping force in the Sinai Peninsula, enforcing the Camp David accords of 1978. The plane had gone down, skidded for a while and then broken up in flames. There were no survivors. And it had started to snow.

I was nervous about my part in this. I was going to field-test my work in a difficult and strange environment and, although I would never have said this to a colleague, I was a little concerned about dealing with this much death – up close.

I had seen dead bodies before; I had done an early trial on a relatively small, if one can say 14 deaths was small, disaster – a plane that had crashed into the ocean off the coast of Panama. I don't recall, and might never have known, the actual cause of death of these bodies I saw, whether blunt force trauma or drowning, but the bodies were intact. The bodies were discolored and grotesquely swollen, almost unrecognizable as humans. Even worse than the sight was the smell, a penetrating wet disgusting smell that filled the air like invisible smoke, permeating my clothing, my hair and my memory so completely that I seemed to smell it for weeks after.

Smell is our most primitive sense and is the most direct contact our brain has with the close environment. Smell drives the limbic system, the area of the brain that manages our most basic drives = hunger, thirst and sex drive and also connects to the hypothalamus and pituitary glands which control our primitive emotions such as fear, pleasure, rage, lust, and bliss. The smell, 2000 pounds of putrefying meat, just bludgeoned through my defenses and for three hours I tried two go up into the autopsy suite and failed.

I would take the elevator up and the sight of the bodies and the almost visible, enveloping blockade of smell would just drive me back down the stairs. Towards the end of the first morning I was able to get into the room and work, but no amount of washing and showering could get the smell from my memory and the images have stayed with me since that day and destroyed my sleep for months after. This was my first experience with this kind of death on any large scale and the smell and memories just escaped all my intellectual attempts to discard them.

I was somehow certain and relieved that this second, much larger test would be different. This plane had crashed in Newfoundland when the ground ambient temperature was below zero weather and so the bodies had been cold from the time they were plucked out of the churned up ground until they were wheeled into the morgue. The bodies had no chance to decompose so, although I was nervous about seeing so many dead, nervous about this big, crucial test of my work, I was certain that, without that terrible, wrenching smell, certain I could handle the experience.


Part 2




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