Longform

FATAL DISTRACTION WHEN MASS DISASTER STRIKES, THE PROBLEMS JUST KEEP PILING UP

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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.)

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Dewey Webb