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.

"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.

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Dewey Webb