“THE UGA SOCCER TEAMS?”
Crowe nodded. “Hanover said both the men and women were traveling to matches somewhere near Washington.”
“Jesus.” Images popped like flashbulbs. A severed leg. Teeth with braces. A young woman caught in a tree.
A sudden stab of fear.
My daughter, Katy, was a student in Virginia, but often visited her best friend in Athens, home of the University of Georgia. Lija was on athletic scholarship. Was it soccer?
Oh, God. My mind raced. Had Katy mentioned a trip? When was her semester break? I resisted the impulse to grab my cell phone.
“How many students?”
“Forty-two passengers booked through the university. Hanover thought most of those were students. Besides the athletes there would be coaches, trainers, girlfriends, boyfriends. Some fans.” She ran a hand across her mouth. “The usual.”
The usual. My heart ached at the loss of so many young lives. Then another thought.
“This will be a media nightmare.”
“Hanover opened with that concern.” Crowe's voice dripped with sarcasm.
“When the NTSB takes over they'll deal with the press.”
And with the families, I didn't add. They, too, would be here, moaning and huddling for comfort, some watching with frightened eyes, some demanding immediate answers, belligerence masking their unbearable grief.
At that moment blades whumped, and we saw a helicopter come in low over the trees. I spotted a familiar figure beside the pilot, another silhouette in the rear. The chopper circled twice, then headed in the opposite direction from where I assumed the road to be.
“Where are they going?”
“Hell if I know. We're not oversupplied with landing pads up here.” Crowe lowered her gaze and replaced her hat, tucking in frizz with a backhand gesture.
Thirty minutes later the chief medical examiner of the State of North Carolina walked into the site from the west, followed by the state's lieutenant governor. The former wore the basic deployment uniform of boots and khaki, the latter a business suit. I watched them pick their way through the debris, the pathologist looking around, assessing, the politician with head bowed, glancing neither left nor right, holding himself gathered tightly, as if contact with his surroundings might draw him in as a participant rather than an observer. At one point they stopped and the ME spoke to a deputy. The man pointed in our direction, and the pair angled toward us.
“Hot damn. A superb photo op.” Said with the same sarcasm she'd directed toward Charles Hanover, the Air TransSouth CEO.
Crowe crumpled her Styrofoam cup and jammed it into a thermos bag. I handed her mine, wondering at the vehemence of her disapproval. Did she disagree with the lieutenant governor's politics, or was there personal history between Lucy Crowe and Parker Davenport?
When the men drew close the ME showed ID. Crowe waved it aside.
“No need for that, Doc. I know who you are.”
So did I, having worked with Larke Tyrell since his appointment as North Carolina's chief medical examiner in the mid-1980s. Larke was cynical, dictatorial, and one of the best pathologist-administrators in the country. Working with an inadequate budget and a disinterested legislature, he had taken an office in chaos and turned it into one of the most efficient death investigative systems in North America.
My forensic career was in its infancy at the time of Larke's appointment, and I had just qualified for certification by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. We met through work I was doing for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, reassembling and identifying the corpses of two drug dealers murdered and dismembered by outlaw bikers. I was one of Larke's first hires as a consulting specialist, and had handled the skeletal, the decomposed, the mummified, the burned, and the mutilated dead of North Carolina ever since.
The lieutenant governor extended one hand, pressed a hankie to his mouth with the other. His face was the color of a frog's belly. He said nothing as we shook.
“Glad you're in country, Tempe,” said Larke, also crushing my fingers in his grip. I was rethinking this whole handshake business.
Larke's “in country” idiom was Vietnam-era military, his dialect pure Carolina. Born in the low country, Larke grew up in a Marine Corps family, then did two hitches of his own before heading off to medical school. He spoke and looked like a spit-and-polish version of Andy Griffith.
“When do you head north?”
“Next week is fall break,” I responded.
Larke's eyes narrowed as he did another sweep of the site.
“I'm afraid Quebec may have to do without its anthropologist this autumn.”
A decade back I'd participated in a faculty exchange with McGill University. While in Montreal I'd begun consulting to the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale, Quebec's central crime and medico-legal lab. At the end of my year, recognizing the need for a staff forensic anthropologist, the provincial government had funded a position, equipped a lab, and signed me up on a permanent consultant basis.
I'd been commuting between Quebec and North Carolina, teaching physical anthropology at UNC-Charlotte and consulting to the two jurisdictions, ever since. Because my cases usually involved the less-than-recent dead, this arrangement had worked well. But there was an understanding on both ends that I would be immediately available for court testimony and in crisis situations.
An aviation disaster definitely qualified as a crisis situation. I assured Larke that I would cancel my October trip to Montreal.
“How did you get here so quickly?”
Again I explained my trip to Knoxville and the phone conversation with the DMORT leader.
“I've already talked to Earl. He'll deploy a team up here tomorrow morning.” Larke looked at Crowe. “The NTSB boys will be rolling in tonight. Until then everything stays put.”
“I've given that order,” Crowe said. “This location is pretty inaccessible, but I'll post extra security. Animals will probably be the biggest problem. Especially when these bodies start to go.”
The lieutenant governor made an odd sound, spun, and lurched off. I watched him brace against a mountain laurel, bend, and vomit.
Larke fixed us with a sincere Sheriff of Mayberry gaze, shifting his eyes from Crowe to me.
“You ladies are making a very difficult job infinitely easier. Words can't express how much I appreciate your professionalism.”
“Sheriff, you keep things squared away here.”
“Tempe, you go on and give your lecture in Knoxville. Then pick up whatever supplies you'll need and report back tomorrow. You're going to be here awhile, so inform the university. We'll secure a bunk for you.”
Fifteen minutes later a deputy was dropping me at my car. I'd been right about a better route. A quarter mile up from where I'd parked, a dirt track cut off from the Forest Service road. Once used for hauling timber, the tiny trail meandered around the mountain, allowing access to within a hundred yards of the main crash site.
Vehicles now lined both sides of the logging trail, and we'd passed newcomers on our way downhill. By sunrise both the Forest Service and county roads would be jammed.
As soon as I was behind the wheel I grabbed my cell phone. Dead.
I did a three-point turn and headed down toward the county road. Once on Highway 74, I tried again. The signal was back, so I punched in Katy's number. A machine picked up after four rings.
Uneasy, I left a message, then set the tape in my head to play the “don't-be-an-idiot-mother” lecture. For the next hour I tried to focus on my upcoming presentation, pushing away thoughts of the carnage I'd left behind and the horror I'd face the following day. It was no go. Images of floating faces and severed limbs shattered my concentration.
I tried the radio. Every station carried accounts of the crash. Broadcasters reverently talked of the death of young athletes and solemnly hypothesized as to cause. Since weather did not seem to be a factor, sabotage and mechanical failure were the favored theories.
Hiking out behind Crowe's deputy, I'd spotted a line of sheared-off trees oriented opposite my point of entrance. Though I knew the damage marked the plane's final descent path, I refused to join in the speculation.
I entered I-40, switched stations for the hundredth time, and caught a journalist reporting from overhead a warehouse fire. Chopper sounds reminded me of Larke, and I realized I hadn't asked where he and the lieutenant governor had landed. I stored the question in the back of my brain.
At nine, I redialed Katy.
Still no answer. I rewound the mind tape.
Arriving in Knoxville, I checked in, contacted my host, then ate the Bojangles' chicken I'd picked up on the outskirts of town. I phoned my estranged husband in Charlotte to request care for Birdie. Pete agreed, saying I'd be billed for cat transport and feeding. He hadn't talked to Katy for several days. After delivering a mini-version of my own lecture, he promised to try to reach her.
Next, I phoned Pierre LaManche, my boss at the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale, to report that I would not be in Montreal the following week. He'd heard reports of the crash and was expecting my call. Last, I rang my department chair at UNC-Charlotte.
Responsibilities covered, I spent an hour selecting slides and placing them into carousel trays, then showered and tried Katy again. No go.
I glanced at the clock. Eleven-forty.
She's fine. She's gone out for pizza. Or she's at the library. Yes. The library. I'd used that one many times when I was in school.
It took a very long time to fall asleep.
By morning, Katy hadn't called and was still not picking up. I tried Lija's number in Athens. Another robotic voice requested a message.
I drove to the only anthropology department in America located in a football stadium, and gave one of the more disjointed talks of my career. The host of the guest lecture series listed my DMORT affiliation in his introduction and mentioned that I would be working the Air TransSouth recovery. Though I could supply little information, follow-up queries largely ignored my presentation and focused on the crash. The question-and-answer period lasted forever.
As the crowd finally milled toward the exits, a scarecrow man in a bow tie and cardigan made straight for the podium, half-moon glasses swinging across his chest. Being in a profession with relatively few members, most anthropologists know one another, and our paths cross and recross at meetings, seminars, and conferences. I'd met Simon Midkiff on several occasions, and knew it would be a long session if I wasn't firm. Looking pointedly at my watch, I gathered my notes, stuffed my briefcase, and descended from the platform.
“How are you, Simon?”
“Excellent.” His lips were cracked, his skin dry and flaky, like that of a dead fish lying in the sun. Tiny veins laced the whites of eyes overshadowed by bushy brows.
“How is the archaeology business?”
“Excellent, as well. Since one must eat, I am engaged in several projects for the cultural resources department in Raleigh. But mainly I spend my days organizing data.” He gave a high-pitched laugh and tapped a hand to one cheek. “It seems I've collected an extraordinary amount of data throughout my career.”
Simon Midkiff earned a doctorate at Oxford in 1955, then came to the United States to accept a position at Duke. But the archaeology superstar published nothing and was denied tenure six years later. Midkiff was given a second chance by the University of Tennessee, again failed to produce publications, and again was let go.
Unable to obtain a permanent faculty position, for thirty years Midkiff had hung around the periphery of academia, doing contract archaeology and teaching courses as replacement instructors were needed at colleges and universities in the Carolinas and Tennessee. He was notorious for excavating sites, filing the requisite reports, then failing to publish his findings.
“I'd love to hear about it, Simon, but I'm afraid I have to run.”
“Yes, indeed. Such a terrible tragedy. So many young lives.” His head moved sadly from side to side. “Where exactly is the crash?”
“Swain County. And I really must get back.” I started to move on, but Midkiff made a subtle shift, blocking my path with a size-thirteen Hush Puppy.
“Where in Swain County?”
“South of Bryson City.”
“Perhaps you could be a bit more specific?”
“I can't give you coordinates.” I did not mask my irritation.
“Please forgive my beastly rudeness. I've been excavating in Swain County, and I was worried about damage to the site. How selfish of me.” Again the giggle. “I apologize.”
At that moment my host joined us.
“May I?” He waggled a small Nikon.
I assumed the Kodak smile.
“It's for the departmental newsletter. Our students seem to enjoy it.”
He thanked me for the lecture and wished me well with the recovery. I thanked him for the accommodations, excused myself to both men, collected my slide carousels, and hurried from the auditorium.
Before leaving Knoxville I located a sporting goods store and purchased boots, socks, and three pairs of khakis, one of which I put on. At an adjoining pharmacy I grabbed two packages of Hanes Her Way cotton bikinis. Not my brand, but they would do. Shoving the panties and extra khakis into my overnighter, I pointed myself east.
Born in the hills of Newfoundland, the Appalachians parallel the East Coast on their plunge from north to south, splitting near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to form the Great Smoky and Blue Ridge chains. One of the world's oldest upland regions, the Great Smoky Mountains rise to over 6,600 feet at Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina–Tennessee border.
Less than an hour out of Knoxville, I'd traversed the Tennessee towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, and was passing east of the dome, awed, as always, by the surreal beauty of the place. Molded by aeons of wind and rain, the Great Smokies roll across the south as a series of gentle valleys and peaks. The forest cover is luxuriant, much of it preserved as national land. The Nantahala. The Pisgah. The Cherokee. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The soft, mohair greens and smokelike haze for which these highlands are named create an unparalleled allure. The earth at its best.
Death and destruction amid such dreamlike loveliness was a stark contrast.
Just outside Cherokee, on the North Carolina side, I made another call to Katy. Bad idea. Again, her voice mail answered. Again I left a message: Phone your mother.
I kept my mind miles from the task ahead. I thought about the pandas at the Atlanta zoo, the fall lineup on NBC, luggage retrieval at the Charlotte airport. Why was it always so slow?
I thought about Simon Midkiff. What an odd duck. What were the chances a plane would drop precisely on his dig?
Avoiding the radio, I slipped in a CD of Kiri Te Kanawa, and listened to the diva sing Irving Berlin.
It was almost two when I approached the site. A pair of cruisers now blocked the county road just below its junction with the Forest Service road. A National Guardsman directed traffic, sending some motorists up the mountain, ordering others back down. I produced ID, and the guardsman checked his clipboard.
“Yes, ma'am. You're on the list. Park on up at the holding area.”
He stepped aside, and I squeezed through a gap between the cruisers.
A holding area had been created from an overlook built to accommodate a fire tower and a small field on the other side of the road. The cliff face had been stripped back to increase the size of the inside tract, and gravel had been spread as a precaution against rain. It was at this location that briefings would take place and relatives counseled until a family assistance center could be established.
Scores of people and vehicles filled both sides of the road. Red Cross trailers. Television vans with satellite dishes. SUVs. Pickups. A hazardous-materials truck. I squeezed my Mazda between a Dodge Durango and a Ford Bronco on the uphill side, grabbed my overnighter, and wove toward the blacktop.
Emerging opposite the overlook, I could see a collapsible school table at the base of the tower, outside one of the Red Cross trailers. A convention-sized coffeemaker gleamed in the sun. Family members huddled around it, hugging and leaning on one another, some crying, others stiffly silent. Many clutched Styrofoam cups, a few spoke into cell phones.
A priest circulated among the mourners, stroking shoulders and squeezing hands. I watched him bend to speak to an elderly woman. With his hunched posture, bald head, and hooked nose he resembled the carrion-eating birds I'd seen on the plains of East Africa, an unfair comparison.
I remembered another priest. Another death watch. That man's sympathetic hovering had extinguished any hope I'd sustained that my grandmother would recover. I recalled the agony of that vigil, and my heart went out to those gathering to claim their dead.
Reporters, cameramen, and soundmen jockeyed for position along the low stone wall bordering the overlook, each team seeking the choicest backdrop for its coverage. As with the 1999 Swissair crash in Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia, I was certain that scenic panoramas would feature prominently in every broadcast.
Shouldering my bag, I headed downhill. Another guardsman allowed me onto the logging trail, which had been converted overnight to a two-lane gravel road. An access route now led from the expanded trail into the crash site. Gravel crunched underfoot as I walked through the freshly cut tunnel of trees, the scent of pine tainted by the faint odor of early stage putrefaction.
Decontamination trailers and Porta-Johns lined barricades blocking access to the primary site, and an Incident Command Center had been set up inside the restricted area. I could see the familiar NTSB trailer, with its satellite dish and generator shed. Refrigerated trucks were parked beside it, and stacks of body bags lay on the ground. This temporary morgue would be the staging site for transfer of remains to a more permanent incident morgue.
Backhoes, cherry pickers, dump trucks, fire engines, and squad cars were scattered here and there. The solitary ambulance told me that the operation had officially changed from “search and rescue” to “search and recovery.” Its vigil was now for injured workers.
Lucy Crowe stood inside the barricades talking with Larke Tyrell.
“How's it going?” I asked.
“My phone never stops.” Crowe sounded exhausted. “Almost turned the damn thing off last night.”
Over her shoulder I could see the debris field where searchers in masks and Tyvek jumpsuits moved in straight lines, eyes to the ground. Occasionally someone squatted, inspected an item, then marked the spot. Behind the team, red, blue, and yellow flags dotted the landscape like colored pins on a city map.
Other white-suited workers milled around the fuselage, wing tip, and engine, taking pictures, jotting notes, and speaking into tiny Dictaphones. Blue caps identified them as NTSB.
“The gang's all here,” I said.
“NTSB, FBI, SBI, FAA, ATF, CBS, ABC. And, of course, the CEO. If they've got letters, they're here.”
“This is nothing,” said Larke. “Give it a day or two.” He peeled back a latex glove and checked his watch.
“Most of the DMORTs are at a briefing at the incident morgue, Tempe, so there's no sense you suiting up now. Let's head in.”
I started to object but Larke cut me off.
“We'll walk back together.”
While Larke went to decontamination, Lucy gave me directions to the incident morgue. It wasn't necessary. I'd spotted the activity while driving up the county road.
“Alarka Fire Department's about eight miles back. Used to be a school. You'll see swing sets and slides, and the engines parked in a field next door.”
On our hike up to the holding area the ME filled me in on recent developments. Foremost among them, the FBI had received an anonymous tip of an on-board bomb.
“Good citizen was kind enough to share this information with CNN. The media are slathering like hounds with a brisket.”
“Forty-two dead students is going to make this a Pulitzer event.”
“There's the other bad news. Forty-two may be a low number. Turns out more than fifty booked through UGA.”
“Have you seen the passenger list?” I could barely get the question out.
“They'll have it at the briefing.”
I felt icy cold.
“Yessir,” Larke went on. “We screw up on this one, the press will eat us alive.”
We separated and hurried to our cars. Somewhere along the road I drove into a pocket of reception, and my phone beeped. I hit the brakes, afraid of losing the signal.
The message was barely discernible through the static.
“Dr. Brennan, this is Haley Graham, Katy's roommate. Um. I played your messages, four of them, I think. And Katy's dad. He called a couple of times. Anyway, then I heard about the crash, and” — Rattling—“ well, here's the thing. Katy left for the weekend, and I'm not sure where she is. I know Lija phoned a couple of times earlier this week, so I'm kinda worried that maybe Katy went to visit her. I'm sure that's stupid, but I thought I'd call and ask if you'd talked to her. Well” —More rattling. “Anyway. I sound like a geek, but I'd feel better if I knew where Katy was. O.K. 'Bye.”
I punched the autodial for Pete's number. He still had not spoken to our daughter. I dialed again. Lija still did not answer her phone.
The cold fear spread through my chest and curled around my breastbone.
A pickup honked me out of the way.
I continued down the mountain, craving but dreading the upcoming meeting, certain of my first request.