Creating a Road Map for Body Recovery

Creating a Road Map for Body Recovery


The first members of the Region 6 Disaster Mortuary Team (D-MORT) to be activated for response to Oklahoma City were funeral directors, who were needed to process the anticipated number of victims. I was later activated to assist in pinpointing the locations of the victims. Todd Ellis, also a D-MORT team member, and I were assigned to help establish the victims` approximate locations, using blueprints of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as the basis for our master list of missing victims.

The process we followed was comprised of the following steps. I firmly believe that what we learned, using this process in Oklahoma City, can be effective in almost any structural collapse where recovery is a problem.

The system is predicated on carefully plotting the pre- and postblast locations of the missing victims and developing the recovery operation plan on the basis of that information. This approach, I believe, can shorten recovery operations at tragic incidents such as the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Secure a blueprint of the incident site as soon as possible. Every building in this country should have a recent blueprint or floor plan that can be accessed should a disaster such as the Oklahoma City Bombing occur. Make the acquisition of this document an early priority. The blueprint should be clean–without mechanical and electrical drawings–so that a nonengineer will be able to read it easily.

The Oklahoma City incident quietly slipped from a rescue operation to a recovery effort. When this transition became evident, the operation section was left with no “road map” for bringing the incident to a close. Oklahoma City Operations Chief Mike Shannon likened this to trying to locate 180 cities without a road map and without knowing the names of the cities or which city was located even if one was found. Quite a daunting task!

Designate office locations on the plans. Having a current blueprint of the building is only the first step. As offices evolve and work areas change, the concentrations of people also change. We contacted Michael Rogers, the manager of the Murrah Building, for assistance in making interior office designations. He directed us to the building`s maintenance personnel, who we found to be the most valuable source for accomplishing our objective. In general, through their frequent interactions with building occupants, maintenance personnel are aware of office layouts and work locations. A member of the maintenance staff drew office layouts on the blueprint. We discovered that the look of the building changed substantially with this additional information.

Secure an accurate list of missing persons. Compile an initial list of the missing. In this type of disaster, the list changes substantially from day to day.

Designate a team to update the list regularly. As part of the recovery effort, it is vitally important to continually update the list of missing victims. Any questionable entries on the initial list should be vigorously investigated to determine their authenticity. The list will change daily as a result of individuals` being found alive in hospitals or being away from the building at the time of the incident. We assigned a team to constantly update the list in an effort to accurately identify who was missing. Investigative personnel, who are proficient at casework, are best qualified for this assignment.

Interview surviving employees. Survivors of a disaster such as the Oklahoma City Bombing usually are willing to help in any way possible and can be helpful in establishing the preblast locations of missing victims. However, they should not be pressured to cooperate.

Do not speculate! When interviewing survivors, try to ascertain if the information being supplied is based on actual knowledge or a guess. Place an item on the master floor plan only after you are relatively certain that the missing person was at a specific work station or other location. If a missing person was en route to another location in the building at the time of the incident, do not place anything on the blueprint until further investigation reveals the individual`s actual location at the time of the blast.

Use a master list and stick with it. Since most offices now use computers to manage the huge volume of information generated in a disaster, it is vital to understand the inherent problems in this approach. If, for example, the list of missing victims is generated on a spreadsheet, it will be difficult to remove a name from the list without changing the numbers assigned to other names on the list–for example, deleting name number 9 on a list of 100 names would cause all names below number 9 to move up one number. This would create a monumental problem in tracking information. If a database were used to track the missing number 9, number 9 would be deleted, and the list would read numbers “7, 8, 10.” The best solution is to stick with the original list of missing victims (the one generated at the time the blueprint is completed). Additional names can be handwritten at the bottom of the master list and numbered accordingly.

Designate missing by number, not name. In Oklahoma City, missing victims were designated by number instead of name to ensure privacy for the families of the missing in case the media or anyone else were to view the blueprint.

Update recoveries often. As positive identification is made, delete the corresponding victim number from the blueprint. Updating the list is a continual process, but it should be done formally at least four times a day. By continually updating the list, rescuers will be able to tell when recovery operations in specific areas have been completed and in which areas recoveries have been made. This information becomes very important in an incident such as that in Oklahoma City. Collapse was so complete that it was nearly impossible to determine even the floor on which rescuers were operating.

Remove numbers only on the basis of positive identification. Remove names from the blueprint only after a positive identification (fingerprints or dental records, for example) has been made. Do not base an identification on personal effects. As a practical matter, tentative changes may be made in the plans based on identification through personal effects; permanent changes in operations, however, must not be made unless the identification is supported by forensic identification.

Restrict dissemination of the list of names. Copy the master list and give it only to individuals directly involved in the operation. You want to avoid having people on-site speculating on the identification of victims as they are recovered and having family members hear that a recovery had been made when it hadn`t or when identification will be delayed.

Continually monitor locations of recoveries. Track every recovery made and compare the location of the recovery with the known location of the victim prior to the incident. This information will assist in directing future recovery efforts.

Carefully document recovery locations. Exact recovery locations must be given to relatives during postevent briefings. In incidents such as the Oklahoma City Bombing, documentation of information was not only advisable, it was mandatory because the incident involved a criminal investigation. To ensure accuracy, documentation should be assigned to a law enforcement officer experienced in criminal investigation.

Revise search areas as needed, based on known prior blast locations and recovery coordinates. Cross-reference victim recovery sites with the known preblast locations. Such an analysis will reveal exactly what occurred–if the building collapsed “pancake” style, for example, or if the floors fell unevenly, resulting in the “big-slide” effect. This information is important in determining the final resting place of the debris and the bodies within it.

Be aware of recovery trends. When dealing with incidents of this nature, it is very important to note anything out of the ordinary. In Oklahoma City, for example, victims on the first floor were actually blown approximately 50 feet back toward the southeast corner of the building. This information was ascertained early in the incident when a victim was recovered from “the Pit” area; the victim was known to have been in the waiting area of the Social Security office. After a positive identification was made, the entire recovery operation was adjusted accordingly.

Push for quick identification. A positive identification should be made as quickly as possible. As soon as a positive forensic identification is made, adjust the blueprint accordingly–for example, if the preblast interview placed several persons in close proximity, subtle changes can be made in the recovery effort once one of those recovered victims has been positively identified. Identification is only the first part of this phase. Someone in the area at which identifications are being made must track the individual recovery and notify personnel at the recovery site of the findings as soon as possible.

Provide a list of probable victims based on the location of recovery. As the operation progresses, you will be able to narrow the list of possible identifications before the body is sent to the morgue for processing. It is advisable to attempt to send a short list of possible identifications based on location of recovery, age of victim, race, and sex. This information, as well as the victim`s height and weight, is included on the master list.

Be positive on recommendations. If you have done your homework and placed names on the master list based on known locations, you should be able to present your recommendations in a positive manner. No one expects you to have a crystal ball. This is not an exact science–only a means by which to create a “road map.” Do not be afraid to fail on occasion. More times than not, the information will be extremely helpful in the eventual outcome of the operation.

Know when to stop. In Oklahoma City, the operation was halted while two bodies were still buried in the rubble. The decision was based on the recommendations of the technical personnel involved in the operation. Although it was hard to do at the time, we now realize this was the correct decision. No one wants a rescuer to be seriously injured or killed in an unnecessarily dangerous attempt to recover a body.

The above system will not necessarily guarantee an operation`s success, but, during the 15 days, 15 hours, and four minutes of the Oklahoma City operation, it worked well. Almost without fail, the victims were located exactly where our road map said they would be. The Murrah Building collapsed in classic “pancake” fashion, and, because of this, victims were recovered in the rubble directly below where they had been located on the upper floors. n


D-MORT teams were formed several years ago to satisfy Emergency Support Function 8 in the National Response Plan. The plan tasked the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) with the responsibility of recovery, identification, and processing of fatalities of a disaster. NDMS entered into a memorandum of agreement with the National Foundation for Mortuary Care for the development of D-MORT teams. D-MORT regions correspond to the 10 FEMA regions of the country. The teams can be activated in part or as an entire team.

A D-MORT team is composed of 25 members, each with a particular area of expertise. Areas of expertise include medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, anthropologists, medical records experts, fingerprint experts, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, X-ray technicians, security personnel, computer experts, and funeral directors. n


CHARLES D. SMITH, JR., is chief medical investigator/deputy coroner for the city of Baton Rouge and parish of East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has been involved in death investigation for 18 years. He is a member of the FEMA Region 6 D-MORT team. He helped coordinate probable search areas for the recovery of victims during the Oklahoma City Bombing.

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