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.