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Chapter 3

ONE OF DMORT'S FIRST DUTIES IN A MASS DISASTER IS THE establishment of an incident morgue as close to the scene as possible. Favored sites include coroner and medical examiner offices, hospitals, mortuaries, funeral homes, hangars, warehouses, and National Guard armories.

When I arrived at the Alarka Fire Department, chosen to receive the bodies from Air TransSouth 228, the front lot was already packed, and a score of cars waited at the entrance. I got in line and crept forward, drumming my fingers and looking around.

The back lot had been set aside for the refrigerated trucks that would transport victims. I watched a pair of middle-aged women drape the fence with opaque sheeting in anticipation of photographers, both professional and amateur, who would arrive to violate the privacy of the dead. A breeze twisted and snapped the plastic as they struggled to secure it to the chain linking.

I finally reached the guard, showed ID, and was allowed to park. Inside, dozens of workers were setting up tables, portable X-ray units and developers, computers, generators, and hot water heaters. Bathrooms were being scrubbed and sanitized, and a staff break room and changing areas were being constructed. A conference room had been created in one rear corner. A computer center and the X-ray station were going up in another.

The briefing was in progress when I entered. People lined the makeshift walls and sat around portable tables pushed together in the center of the “room.” Fluorescent lights hung by wires from the ceiling, casting a blue tint on tense, pale faces. I slipped to the back and took a seat.

The NTSB investigator in charge, Magnus Jackson, was finishing an Incident Command System overview. The IIC, as Jackson was called, was lean and hard as a Doberman pinscher, with skin almost as dark. He wore oval wire-rimmed glasses; his graying hair was cropped close to his head.

Jackson was describing the NTSB “go team” system. One by one he introduced those heading the investigative groups under his command: structures, systems, power plants, human performance, fire and explosion, meteorology, radar data, event recorders, and witness statements. Investigators, each in a cap and shirt marked NTSB in bold yellow letters, rose or waved as Jackson ran down the roster.

Though I knew these men and women would determine why Air TransSouth 228 fell from the sky, the hollow feeling in my chest would not go away, making it hard to concentrate on anything but the passenger list.

A question snapped me back.

“Have the CVR and FDR been located?”

“Not yet.”

The cockpit voice recorder captures radio transmissions and sounds in the cockpit, including the pilots' voices and engine noise. The flight data recorder monitors flight operating conditions, such as altitude, airspeed, and heading. Each would play an important role in determining probable cause.

When Jackson finished, an NTSB family affairs specialist discussed the Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters. He explained that the NTSB would serve as liaison between Air TransSouth and the victims' families. A family assistance center was being established at the Sleep Inn in Bryson City to serve as the collecting point for antemortem identification information, facts that family members would provide to help identify remains as those of a son or daughter. Despite myself, I shivered.

Charles Hanover stood next. He looked strikingly ordinary, like a pharmacist and member of the Elks rather than the CEO of a regional airline. His face was ashen and his hands trembled. A tic pulled his left eye, another the corner of his mouth, and one side of his face jumped when the two fired simultaneously. There was something benign and sad about the man, and I wondered how Crowe could have found him offensive.

Hanover reported that Air TransSouth had set up a toll-free number to handle public inquiries. Phones were being installed in the family assistance center, and personnel had been appointed to meet regularly with family members who were present, and to maintain contact with those who were not. Arrangements had been made for mental health and spiritual support.

My agitation grew as the briefing dragged on. I'd heard it all before, and I wanted to see that list.

A representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency discussed communications. NTSB headquarters, the command center at the crash site, and the incident morgue were now linked, and FEMA would assist the NTSB in the dissemination of public information.

Earl Bliss spoke about DMORT. He was a tall, angular man with thinning brown hair slicked back and severely parted. As a high school student, Earl had taken a part-time job picking up bodies on weekends. Within ten years, he'd purchased his own funeral home. Named Early because of his premature arrival into the world, Earl had lived his entire forty-nine years in Nashville, Tennessee. When not deployed on mass fatality incidents, he favored string ties and played banjo in a country-and-western band.

Earl reminded the representatives of the other agencies that each DMORT team was composed of private citizens with particular expertise, including pathologists, anthropologists, dentists, fingerprint specialists, funeral directors, medical records technicians and transcribers, X-ray technicians, mental health specialists, and security, administrative, and support personnel.

One of the ten regional DMORT teams was activated at the request of local officials for natural disasters, aircraft and other transportation accidents, fires, bombings, terrorist attacks, and incidents of mass murder/suicide. Earl mentioned recent deployments. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, 1995. The Amtrak derailment, Bourbonnais, Illinois, 1999. Commuter aircraft accidents, Quincy, Illinois, 1996, and Monroe, Michigan, 1997. Korean Air Flight 801, Guam, 1997; Egypt Air Flight 990, Rhode Island, 1999; and Alaska Airlines Flight 261, California, 2000.

I listened as Earl described the modular design of the incident morgue, and explained how remains would move through it. All victims and personal effects would be tagged, coded, photographed, and X-rayed in the remains identification section. Disaster victim packets, DVPs, would be created, and human bodies, body parts, and tissue would be sent on to the postmortem data collection section for autopsy, including anthropological, dental, and fingerprint examination.

All postmortem findings would be computerized in the identifi-cation section. Records provided by families would also be entered there, and antemortem and postmortem information would be compared. Following analysis, remains would be sent to a holding area to await release.

Larke Tyrell was the last to take the floor. The medical examiner thanked Earl, drew a deep breath, and surveyed the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a lot of grieving families out there searching for peace of mind. Magnus and his boys are going to help them by figuring out what knocked this plane out of the sky. We'll contribute to that process, but our main job here will be victim identification. Having something to bury speeds the healing, and we're going to try our damndest to send a casket home to each and every family.”

I remembered my hike through the woods, and knew what many of those coffins would hold. In the coming weeks DMORT, local, and state personnel would go to extraordinary lengths to identify every scrap of tissue associated with the crash. Fingerprints, dental and medical records, DNA, tattoos, and family photos would be the main sources of information, and the team anthropologists would be intimately involved in the ID process. Despite our best efforts, little would be left to put in some caskets. A severed limb. A charred molar crown. A cranial fragment. In many cases, what went home would weigh only grams.

“Once site processing is complete, all remains will be brought here from the temporary morgue,” Larke continued. “We expect transport to start in the next few hours. That's when the real work begins for us. You all know your jobs, so I've got just a few reminders, then I'll shut up.”

“That'll be a first.”

Mild laughter.

“Don't separate any personal effects from any set of remains until they're fully photographed and written up.”

My mind slid to Raggedy Ann.

“Not every set of remains will go through every stage of processing. The folks doing intake will decide what goes where. But if a station is skipped, indicate that clearly in the disaster victim packet. I don't want to be guessing later if dental wasn't done because there weren't any teeth, or because that station got overlooked. Put something on every sheet in the packet. And be sure that information stays with the body. We want full documentation on every ID.

“One more thing. As I'm sure you've heard, the FBI received a call about an explosive device. Be alert for blast effects. Check X rays for bomb parts and shrapnel. Examine lungs and eardrums for pressure damage. Look for peppering and flash burns on the skin. You know the drill.”

Larke paused and looked around the room.

“Some of you are first-timers, others have done this before. I don't have to tell any of you how hard the next few weeks are going to be. Take breaks. No one works more than twelve hours per day. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to a counselor. There's no weakness in that. These folks are here for your benefit. Use them.”

Larke clipped his pen to the legal pad he was holding.

“Guess that about does it, except for thanking my staff and Earl's DMORT folks for getting here so quickly. As for the rest of you, clear out of my morgue.”

As the room emptied, I crossed to Larke, determined to ask about the passenger list. Magnus Jackson arrived at the same moment and nodded a greeting. I'd met the IIC while working a commuter crash some years back, and knew he was not one for trading pleasantries.

“Howdy, Tempe,” Larke said to me, then turned to Jackson.

“I see you've brought a full team.”

“There's going to be a lot of pressure on this one. We'll have close to fifty on site by tomorrow.”

I knew that only superficial examination of the wreckage would be done in situ. Once photographed and recorded, the plane's parts would be removed and taken to a permanent location for reassembly and analysis.

“Anything else on the bomb?” Larke asked.

“Hell, it's probably a crank, but the media already has this thing wrapped up slicker than snail spit. CNN's calling him the Blue Ridge Bomber, geography be damned. ABC floated the Soccer Bomber, but it just doesn't have the alliterative ring.”

“The FBI's coming on board?” Larke asked.

“They're here, pawing at the fence, so it may not be long.”

I broke in, unable to wait another moment.

“Do we have a passenger list?”

The ME slid a printout from his pad and handed it to me.

I experienced a kind of fear I'd rarely felt in my life.

Please, God.

The world receded as I raced through the names. Anderson. Beacham. Bertrand. Caccioli. Daignault. Larke spoke, but his words didn't penetrate.

A lifetime later, I unclamped the teeth from my lower lip and resumed breathing.

Neither Katy Brennan Petersons nor Lija Feldman was on the list.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.

I opened them to questioning looks. Offering no explanation, I returned the printout, the profound relief already blunted by a sense of guilt. My daughter was alive, but the children of others lay dead on a mountain. I wanted to work.

“What would you like me to do?” I asked Larke.

“Earl has the morgue under control. Go work recovery. But once transport starts I'll need you here.”

Back at the site, I went directly to a decontamination trailer and donned mask, gloves, and jumpsuit. Looking more like a spaceman than an anthropologist, I nodded to the guard, circled the barricade, and crossed to the temporary morgue for an update.

The exact location of every flagged item was being entered into a CAD-type program using technology called Total Station. The position of airplane parts, personal effects, and human remains would later be plotted onto virtual grids and printed out as hard copy. Since the technique was far quicker and less labor-intensive than the traditional system of mapping with strings and grids, the removal of remains had already begun. I headed out across the debris field.

The sun was arcing toward the tree line, and delicate shadows spiderwebbed the carnage. Klieg lights had been set up, and the smell of putrefaction had strengthened. Otherwise, little had changed in the time I'd been gone.

For the next three hours I assisted my colleagues in tagging, photographing, and packaging what was left of the passengers of Air TransSouth 228. Complete corpses, limbs, and torsos went into large body bags, fragments into small ones. The bags were then hauled uphill and placed on racks in refrigerated trailers.

The temperature was warm, and I perspired inside my suit and gloves. Flies swarmed, attracted by the rotting flesh. Several times I had to fight nausea as I scraped up entrails or brain tissue. Eventually, my nose and mind numbed. I didn't notice when the sky went red and the lights clicked on.

Then I came to the girl. She lay face up, legs bent backward in the middle of her shins. Her features had been gnawed, and the exposed bone glowed crimson in the sunset.

I straightened, wrapped my arms around my middle, and drew several steadying breaths. In, out. In, out.

Dear God. Wasn't a thirty-thousand-foot plunge enough? Must creatures degrade what remained?

These children had danced, played tennis, ridden the roller coaster, checked their e-mail. They represented the dreams of their parents. But no longer. Now they would be framed photos resting on closed caskets.

I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Time for a break, Tempe.”

Earl Bliss's eyes peered at me from the slit between his mask and cap.

“I'm fine.”

“Take a break. That's an order.”


“At least an hour.” Halfway to the NTSB command center I stopped, dreading the chaos I knew I'd find. I needed serenity. Life. Birds singing, squirrels chasing, and air that was free of the smell of death. I reversed direction and walked toward the woods.

Skirting the edge of the debris field, I spotted a break in the trees and remembered that Larke and the lieutenant governor had appeared at that point, coming from their helicopter. Up close, I could see the route they had probably taken. Perhaps a trail or streambed at one time, it was now a meandering, treeless passage littered with rocks and bordered by scrub. Stripping off mask and gloves, I headed into the forest.

As I moved deeper into the trees the organized hubbub around the wreckage receded, and forest sounds took over. Thirty yards in, I climbed onto a fallen sourwood, drew my feet to my bum, and gazed up at the sky. Yellow and rose now streaked the red as nightfall crawled toward the horizon. It would soon be dark. I couldn't stay long.

I let my brain cells pick their topic.

The girl with the ravaged face.

No. New category.

The cells chose living people.

Katy. My daughter was over twenty now, moving off on a life of her own. It was what I wanted, of course, but the severing of ties was hard. The child Katy had passed through my life and disappeared. I was now meeting the young woman Katy, and liking her very much.

But where is she? the cells asked.


Pete. We were better friends separated than we'd ever been married. On occasion, he actually talked to me and listened to me. Should I ask for a divorce and move on, or roll with the status quo?

The cells had no answer.

Andrew Ryan. I'd been thinking of him a lot lately. Ryan was a homicide detective with the provincial police in Montreal. Though we'd known each other for nearly a decade, it was only last year that I'd agreed to date him.

Date. I had my usual cringe reaction. There had to be a better term for singles over forty.

The cells had no suggestion.

Nomenclature aside, Ryan and I had never pulled it off. Before our first official social outing, he had gone undercover, and I hadn't seen him in months. At times like this, I missed him intensely.

I heard rustling in the underbrush and held my breath to listen. The woods were quiet. Seconds later I heard it again, this time on my other side. The movement sounded too large for a rabbit or squirrel.

The brain cells sounded a low-level alarm.

Thinking perhaps Earl had followed me, I stood up and looked around. I was alone.

For a full minute nothing moved, then the rhododendron to my right jiggled, and I heard a low growl. I whirled but saw only leaves and bushes. Eyes probing into the shrubbery, I slipped off the log and planted my feet.

Moments later there was another growl, followed by a highpitched keening.

The cells called in the limbic guys, and adrenaline shot to every part of my body.

Slowly, I squatted and reached for a rock. Hearing movement behind me, I pivoted in that direction.

My eyes met other eyes, black and gleaming. Lips curled back over teeth pale and slick in the deepening twilight. Between the teeth, something horrifyingly familiar.

A foot.

The cells struggled for meaning.

The teeth were embedded in a human foot.

The cells linked to recently stored memories. A mangled face. A deputy's comment.

Oh, God! A wolf? I was unarmed. What to do? Threaten?

The animal stared at me, its body feral and emaciated.


No. I had to get the foot. It belonged to a person. A person with family and friends. I wouldn't abandon it to scavengers.

Then a second wolf emerged and positioned itself behind the first, teeth bared, saliva darkening the fur around its mouth. It snarled and the lips quivered. Slowly, I stood and raised the rock.


Both animals halted, and the first wolf dropped the foot. Sniffing the air, the ground, the air again, it lowered its head, raised its tail, took a step in my direction, then sidled away a few feet and stopped, motionless and watching. The other wolf followed. Were they uncertain or did they have a plan? I started to retreat, heard a snap, and turned to see three more animals at my back. They appeared to be slowly circling.


I screamed and threw the rock, catching the closest animal near its eye. He yelped and twisted, scampering backward. The others froze for a moment, then resumed circling.

Placing my back to the fallen tree, I twisted a branch from side to side, trying to detach it.

The circle was getting smaller. I could hear their panting, smell their bodies. One of the group took a step inside the circle, then another, flicking its tail up, down. It stood staring, soundless.

The branch broke, and at the sound the wolf jumped back, then stood again and stared.

Grasping my branch like a baseball bat, I screamed, “Beat it, you scavengers. Get out of here,” and lunged at the lead wolf, swinging my club.

The wolf easily jumped out of the way, retreated a few feet, then resumed circling and snarling. As I was readying my lungs for the loudest yell that had ever escaped them, someone beat me to it.

“Scram, you goddamn fur balls. Yo! Haul ass!”

Then one missile followed by another landed near the lead wolf.

The wolf scented, snarled, then spun and loped off into the underbrush. The others hesitated, then moved off behind him.

Hands trembling, I dropped the branch and braced myself against the fallen sourwood.

A figure in Tyvek and mask ran toward me and heaved another rock in the direction of the disappearing wolves. Then a hand went up and removed the mask. Though barely visible in the twilight gloom, I recognized the face.

But it couldn't be. This was too improbable to be real.


@by txiuqw4

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