FATAL DISTRACTION WHEN MASS DISASTER STRIKES, THE PROBLEMS JUST KEEP PILING UP
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, 80-odd warm bodies gathered to determine what to do with a hundred cold ones.
Although officially billed as the second annual "Mass Fatality Incident Management Conference," the marquee in the lobby of the Fountain Suites Hotel in north Phoenix announced the event in verbiage that was at once economical and sensational: "MULTIPLE DEATH CONFERENCE."
"The hotel management complained about the sign and said it was upsetting some of the people who were at the hotel for other things," reports Ethel De Marr, whose organization sponsored the two-day necro-rama.
"I personally suspect that people weren't upset but merely curious," continues De Marr, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Emergency Services. "I told the manager, 'This is what it is. If anyone really wants to know what we're doing in there, I'll be happy to explain it.'" Had anyone taken De Marr up on her offer, they'd have discovered that the conferencegoers (mostly law officers, firefighters, emergency personnel and funeral-industry bigwigs from around the state) were boning up on what to do with the mountain of mortality resulting from plane crashes, explosions, earthquakes and other disasters.
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"Our main task is to assist the state in preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters of any kind," says De Marr, referring to her agency's function. "However, as I was reviewing our plans, I noticed that the plans for these sorts of incidents always ended after the last red light and siren left," she continues. "Then there was a little one-liner at the end that said the medical examiner was responsible for the dead bodies--and that was the end of it. I thought, 'Wait a minute--there's got to be more to it than that.'"
That became immediately clear to anyone who attended the mass-fatalities conference held in late April. Unfolding like a socially redeeming version of Faces of Death, the workshop combined the gruesome fascination of an autopsy with prosaic tips that might have been culled from postmortem hints from Heloise. (Psst! If there's a mass-fatality incident in your community, immediately alert all costume-rental shops in the area. Unscrupulous journalists and lawyers have been known to infiltrate restricted disaster scenes by donning official-looking uniforms.)
Imagine watching an episode of Quincy, M.E. while simultaneously reading the autobiography of Thomas "Coroner to the Stars" Noguchi and you begin to get the picture. Color it red.
At some level, at least, mass fatalities are in the eye of the beholder, explains De Marr. "A disaster for Prescott might be very different than a disaster for Phoenix," she says. "Basically, it depends on whether your resources are overwhelmed. The number of dead is certainly a factor. In some smaller communities, you can have a situation where 20 died and that would constitute a disaster or, at least, a very difficult situation for that community."
phoenix, unlike many other big cities, has not had the horrifying experience of a major airliner disaster. Nor has there been a big earthquake--through no fault of our own.
The last time a large number of Arizonans were killed in the same incident was in August 1987, when a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Phoenix crashed in Detroit. Many of the 155 who were killed were from the Valley.
Not that there haven't been disasters in Arizona. In July 1973, five people were killed and more than 100 people were burned when a railroad car full of propane exploded in Kingman. In July 1986, a helicopter collided with a small plane above the Grand Canyon, instantly cremating all 25 people on both crafts.
Still, when it comes to disaster, what better place to look than Los Angeles? Fittingly, the first speaker at the Multiple Death Conference was Ilona Lewis, director of the Los Angeles County Coroner's Department. (Was it coincidence that the day before the conference, the Los Angeles area was shaken by an earthquake?)
As the country's largest coroner's department, Lewis' crew routinely processes 50 cases a day--generally the bodies of persons who've died under violent, mysterious or unattended circumstances. The Maricopa County medical examiner, by comparison, averages seven a day.
Lewis, whose appearance and demeanor are reminiscent of Sharon Gless during her Cagney and Lacey incarnation, was matter-of-fact as she listed the duties of the coroner's office in a mass-fatality situation: "We recover human remains, identify the dead, notify the next of kin, protect personal property, handle final disposition of remains and record death records."
Lewis devoted much of her lecture to an illustrated case study of a crash her office assisted in last year, when a USAir jet collided with a commuter plane at Los Angeles International Airport, killing 34 people. As a result of well-planned coordination between the various emergency teams, Lewis said, the fatality-recovery maneuver went so smoothly that all body parts were recovered, including a missing arm that was eventually found wedged in the wreckage of the fuselage.
Right now, Lewis said, her office is helping not only the professionals but the public prepare for the Big One, the impending California earthquake that some experts predict may kill as many as 10,000 people.
Because of the presumed enormity of the upcoming quake, Lewis currently tours Southern California schools and businesses with a "disaster preparedness" lecture that includes tips on storing corpses until help arrives.
"The first thing you want to do is determine that the individual is in fact dead," cautioned Lewis. "There's nothing worse than wrapping someone in plastic when they're not really dead but are, in fact, simply asleep or unconscious."
Lewis' warning was greeted with a wave of laughter, as was a subsequent demonstration during which two volunteers wrapped a third participant burrito-style inside a plastic sheet until the "deceased" could be properly buried. Thanks to the good-natured clowning around between the "corpse" (who cracked bondage jokes) and one of Lewis' colleagues (who jokingly stressed the importance of checking the victim's wallet for money), it was a crowd-pleasing exercise that wouldn't appear out of place on a TV game show.
Gallows humor aside, Lewis suggested that the links between proper body-storage procedure and a Beat the Clock stunt are actually a lot stronger than most people would like to imagine.
"In hot weather, you're going to have one or two days, tops, to get a body wrapped before it starts going through rapid decomposition," explained Lewis. "And, remember," she added, "maggot formation is going to start almost right away."
When the average citizen is faced with corpses during catastrophic circumstances, Lewis strongly advocates the old "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy--particularly in the event of an earthquake where trained help may not arrive for several days.
"If you're trapped with the deceased and they're starting to decompose, it's going to be a very unpleasant environment, both psychologically and public-healthwise," she said. "That's why we're trying to teach the general public that if there are deceased employees, loved ones, or students, take these individuals, wrap them securely and move them to the coolest part of your building.
"We always tell people, 'Tie them up securely and put them out in the garage or someplace like that.' We say that under the guise of protecting the loved one, when in fact we're really protecting the living. When these decomposition processes start occurring, you don't want to be around if you can possibly help it. If you don't have a roll of plastic, improvise. Those 33-gallon trash bags that most of us have around the house work real well for this purpose."
Asked about the possibility of mass burials in the aftermath of the Big One, Lewis shook her head vehemently.
"Only as an absolute last resort," she insisted, pointing out that many people (particularly in Los Angeles' ethnic stewpot) strongly oppose, on religious and cultural grounds, the concept of mass burials. "We'll do mass burials only if the health hazard were so severe that we couldn't handle it any other way.
"Our preferred method would be to find mass-fatality collection points throughout the county and try to refrigerate the decedents." (Several Southern California supermarket chains have already volunteered the use of refrigerated trucks and warehouses for just such an emergency; Lewis' office is also exploring the feasibility of using refrigerated tankers in L.A. Harbor.) "With refrigerated facilities," she said, "we can keep the bodies for many, many weeks until the identification process is completed."
Should mass burials become a necessity, interment workers will reportedly follow emergency guidelines already mapped out by the National Funeral Directors Association. "It won't be like you see in the movies where they're throwing everyone in a pit and dumping lye all over everyone," Lewis promised. Instead, individually wrapped quake victims will be buried in shallow graves, one body deep, allowing for possible exhumation at a later date.
Looking ahead to L.A.'s Great Shake, Lewis wryly told her audience: "People ask me, 'Are you going to autopsy all these bodies?' Uh-uh. If the Big One hits, we aren't going to have the time--or manpower--to autopsy any of them.
"Oh, sure, if we run across a gunshot wound or something that obviously suggests foul play, that body will be pulled aside," she said. "But in a big disaster, our main thing is going to be IDing those bodies. That's why a disaster is such a great time to hide a homicide." Then, smiling, she added, "If there are any of you out there who want to get rid of your wife, that's the time to do it."
Lewis' offhanded quip proved timelier than anyone imagined. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots less than two weeks after the Multiple Death Conference, the Los Angeles Times reported that law officials in that city seriously doubted that all of the 50-plus deaths attributed to the civil unrest were, in fact, riot-related. According to the newspaper, police believed that at least some of the deaths were gang-related homicides.
for reasons that were not immediately clear, FBI disaster guru Jim Spriggle preferred to be introduced as "Crazy Jim."
However, that mystery was cleared up as soon as he opened his mouth. After announcing to the Multiple Death Conference crowd that he was an expert in "fingerprinting, body identification, and a great cook" to boot, Spriggle confessed that these talents "don't necessarily go hand in hand." "However," he added, "I do have some great recipes for ribs."
As the crowd--which had just come back from a lunch break--moaned, the deadpan G-man, who is technical supervisor of the FBI's Disaster Team, stoically forged ahead. "Just a little disaster humor there," he said. "If you have something you want to bring up, please do. But if it's your lunch, please step outside."
A late arrival to Spriggle's lecture might have mistaken his slide show as a photographic salute to his barbecuing prowess. In reality, the on-screen presentation documented a cavalcade of severely charred corpses, most them plane-crash victims, that Spriggle has helped identify over the years.
The FBI team, established in 1940 when a plane carrying several FBI agents traveling with classified government documents crashed in rural Virginia, now offers its services to any emergency group requesting assistance during a mass-fatality situation. Although Spriggle no longer actively works what he calls the "meat line," the 20-year FBI veteran's celebrated caseload includes supervising the identification of 913 bodies returned to the United States following the 1978 Jonestown suicide massacre in Guyana.
"I always say that there are two parts to a disaster: the awful easy part and the awful hard part," said Spriggle. "The awful easy part--it's awful, but it's easy--is getting rid of the survivors. The awful hard part is getting rid of the deceased. They don't go away until you identify them. But once you identify them, they're gone."
Playing devil's advocate, Spriggle ticked off a list of things that don't constitute positive identification. "Driver's licenses may give you a clue who you're dealing with, but as far as I'm concerned, they're not positive proof," he said. To illustrate the point, he cued up a slide juxtaposing a driver's-license picture of a heavyset, red-haired man with a beard and a morgue shot of what at first glance appears to be a remarkably similar-looking corpse. "We found this license near the body, so it's got to be the deceased guy, right?" he asked. "Uh-uh. If you look carefully, it's not the same guy at all, even though they do bear a certain resemblance."
Spriggle also expressed a dim view of "eyeball idents," in which a body is identified by friends or family members: "We've seen too many bad things happen over the years where relatives identify their loved ones under hysterical conditions and they just don't do it properly." The ideal ID? Fingerprints and dental records, claimed Spriggle.
"You can develop prints off a surprising number of bodies," he said, "even ones that have been badly burned."
According to Spriggle, air-crash victims often clench their hands into fists as the plane goes down, an act that generally protects the prints from fire. Similarly, moisture in the mouth tends to keep teeth from being totally destroyed by fire.
Unfortunately, he said, even if a body is successfully fingerprinted, there is often nothing immediately available with which to compare it. "Outside of someone who's served in the military, worked in some kind of high-security government job or has a criminal record, most people have never been fingerprinted," said Spriggle. "Of course, if you have an idea who the body might be, you can compare the prints with objects in that person's home, but that's a lot of work."
Spriggle argued that driver's-license bureaus could make everyone's lives and deaths a lot simpler by requiring thumbprints of applicants on all driver's licenses. "Of course, that would only work if the prints were taken by someone who knew what they were doing"--a dubious proposition, Spriggle admitted, because taking prints requires quite a bit of skill.
While trying to verify the identities of several babies and youngsters who died in the Detroit plane crash of 87, Spriggle summoned hospital records of suspected victims in hopes of identifying the bodies through footprints taken at birth. "The nurses who took those prints apparently hadn't had proper training," he recalled. "As a result, the footprints we received were absolutely worthless for identification purposes." If Spriggle's anecdotes tended to stress the worst aspects of mass-fatality management, that was strictly intentional.
"Some of these other speakers have been giving you all the positive points of a disaster," Spriggle told the crowd. "I'm going to give you all the negative ones."
Case in point? Spriggle told of the bungled aftermath of the Northwest Airlines Flight 255 disaster, when the Phoenix-bound jet crashed into a Detroit freeway cloverleaf shortly after takeoff. The crash killed 155 people onboard (only one passenger, 4-year-old Cecilia Cichan of Tempe, survived), as well as several motorists who happened to be driving near the crash site.
Pointing to a lack of advance planning and proper equipment, personality conflicts and a variety of other reasons, Spriggle contended that the postcrash fatality management was botched from the git-go.
"Basically, there just weren't enough people to handle the situation," he said. "For starters, you had 155 people but due to the dismemberment that occurs on impact, there were maybe three times that many body parts." (Spriggle explained that plane-crash victims are frequently bisected at the waist by seatbelts, while feet are often torn off when they bang against the bottoms of seats.)
Spriggle claimed that he has since buried the hatchet with the Detroit medical examiner in charge of that operation, but the two didn't originally see eye to eye on how the situation was handled from the outset. "The medical examiner was reluctant to expose outsiders to all this carnage, so all he had to work with was three or four people from his office, plus his teenage son," he said. "So you had five or six people trying to collect several hundred different body parts. When it began to get dark, they decided to leave some of the bodies out overnight simply because they were too tired to lift them."
A bad mistake, said Spriggle. "What happened was that during the next ten or 12 hours a lot of decomposition set in. The medical examiner also hadn't counted on rodents and other animals carrying away body parts." (When news of the body-retrieval snafu became public, the medical examiner responded with a press release charging the FBI disaster team with "foot dragging" in responding to a request for help.)
Admittedly, some of the problems associated with the Flight 255 aftermath probably couldn't have been avoided--like the necessity of using an unrefrigerated airplane hangar as a temporary morgue site. (Spriggle reported that the emergency team went through at least a case of Raid in an attempt to combat swarms of insects that infiltrated the steamy facility.) But Spriggle argued that other problems could not be so easily dismissed. "When we first arrived, there was one gurney for 155 bodies," he said incredulously. "One!"
Spriggle also claimed it was a big mistake to use a curtained-off section of the makeshift morgue as a collection point where relatives of crash victims were ushered in to identify personal property and clothing found at the crash site. Far better, he said, to have simply videotaped the items and let relatives watch the tape somewhere else. "Can you imagine what it must have been like for those people to go into that hangar knowing it was full of bodies?" he said. "You've also got to realize that having all that traffic coming in and out of there is very distracting to the people trying to ident the bodies. This work is tough enough without having to listen to a hysterical relative breaking down in tears and screams every so often." Spriggle also gave low marks to a complex numbering system someone had devised to keep track of unidentified bodies. "When you're doing this kind of work, you want to keep your numbering system as simple as possible," he explained. "In this situation, someone really overdid it, and the whole system kind of went to hell after a while." As a result of a mix-up when one of the morgue crew confused a 9 with a 4, the wrong body was released to a funeral home and actually buried before anyone realized the mistake.
if the mishandling of the Flight 255 disaster can be attributed to too few trying to do too much, the opposite was true when an Avianca airliner ran out of fuel while approaching New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on a rainy night in January 1990. The Colombian jet plummeted into a wooded hillside, killing 73 of the 160 people onboard.
"I've never seen a more difficult rescue," the medical director of the New York City Emergency Medical Services told reporters at the time. "It's as if an instructor had cooked this up as a worst-case scenario."
He'd get no argument from one of the fatality confab's speakers. Tom Shepardson, a mortician from Syracuse, New York, who is president of the National Funeral Directors, was on the scene of the Avianca crash. He concluded that if everything that could go wrong didn't, it wasn't for lack of trying.
For starters, the jet had the misfortune to crash into a hillside in the elite Long Island community of Cove Neck, an enclave so exclusive that the neighborhood is served by a solitary dead-end road that winds through the area for several miles. "Everybody has to get to the scene because they're so important," recalled Shepardson, but due to poor coordination between emergency agencies, zealous volunteers from as far away as New Jersey clogged the road leading to the crash site.
As a result, doctors and rescue workers were forced to abandon their cars and walk upward of five miles to the disaster site; one member of the emergency team (an elderly fire marshal) had to be hospitalized himself after suffering a heart attack during the lengthy uphill hike. Because ambulances were useless in the traffic jam, survivors had to be removed from the site in helicopters, a time-consuming move that almost certainly added to the final body count.
According to Shepardson, investigators faced another headache when the airline's official tally of people onboard failed to match the number of passports found in the wreckage.
"We couldn't figure it out," said Shepardson. "No matter how many times we counted, we kept coming up with nine more passports than we had bodies." That mystery was finally solved when it was discovered that the Colombian crew members were traveling with two passports apiece--a legitimate document and a phony, just in case they ran into legal trouble on foreign sod.
(As it turned out, some of the hospitalized passengers were the ones who really ran into trouble. X-rays taken after the crash revealed that several people aboard the Colombian jet were drug "mules," narcotics couriers whose intestines were lined with dozens of cocaine-filled condoms.)
The circuslike atmosphere surrounding the crash only grew worse, said Shepardson. Rather than loading the bodies into an unmarked van for transport to the temporary morgue, workers used a standard yellow school bus--complete with wall-to-wall windows. Unlike the van, the school bus was too large to be driven into the morgue garage. That meant that dozens of bodies wrapped in clear plastic would have to be removed from the bus, then carted inside the building--all in full view of the residents of a multistoried hospital right next door to the morgue.
Shepardson said he put the kibosh on those plans until a fleet of guards had been dispatched to the hospital to make sure curtains on all windows facing the morgue had been drawn. "It was a bad situation all the way around," recalled Shepardson.
Meanwhile, problems kept piling up. A local Holiday Inn offered the use of a ballroom as a meeting point for relatives awaiting word of passengers who'd been aboard the plane. But the unthinkable happened. "Here we had a ballroom full of highly emotional people, many of whom didn't speak English, and one of the hotel people calls me aside to say we've got a little problem," recalled Shepardson. "Yes, you guessed it. It turns out that we had to move everyone out of the room because the hotel goofed. It seems that they'd booked a wedding into the room for later that day and forgotten to tell us about it."
And so it went. Concerned about negative publicity in news photos, Avianca reportedly wasted no time in sending a crew out to paint over the name of the airline on the crash wreckage. However, Shepardson said, the airline was considerably slower to send an official to help deal with the red tape associated with the carnage.
Adding a final note of absurdity to the tragedy was a government bureaucrat who materialized with a strange query. "As if we didn't have enough to worry about," Shepardson said, "this officious guy comes in and wants to know whether we've destroyed all the fruit on the plane yet."
several weeks after the Multiple Death Conference, event organizer Ethel De Marr conducted her own postmortem. For her, at least, the most valuable information from Arizona's second annual fatality seminar surfaced with regard to the Avianca disaster, raising questions about a foreign airliner's crash on domestic turf.
"That was a good lesson learned," she said. "Here in Arizona, I don't think we'd considered the possibility of a crash involving a Mexican plane. In this country, the airlines have a huge role to play, especially when it comes to payment for processing the bodies. What are our relationships with some of the foreign carriers?"
When it comes to the other logistic problems of mass disaster, Phoenix is getting a jump on most other cities. Earlier this year, Phoenix beat out several other Western cities for the right to house a so-called "mobile morgue." The $40,000 cache of morgue equipment is housed at a Sky Harbor hangar, either for use here or for quick shipment to other cities in the West. (Los Angeles, the biggest Western city, was ruled out as a storage place because officials feared an earthquake would destroy the stash of equipment.)
For now, all this talk about huge disasters in Arizona is fortunately just talk. But as De Marr says, "You can always benefit from listening to other people's experiences."
Well, die and learn.
TRYING TO BE A HERO... v6-17-92
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