The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 1

A little over a year ago, I ended up assigned to one of the odder, and more interesting, projects I have so far had the good fortune to work on. The project was strangely amazing, but also a circus – complete with exaggerated urban legends, corpse-sniffing dogs, a would-be intrepid reporter who was more silly than intrepid, internet commentors attempting to justify the Japanese internment, renowned forensics experts, literal grave robbers, and a strangely-colored Ford Escort used to carry human remains. Unfortunately, for professional reasons, I can’t give out all of the details, but suffice to say that the story became more interesting than what I have written here.

I should say, from the outset though, that I was uniformly impressed by the actions and attitudes of our client, the interest of most members of the community, and the work of the Sherriff’s department. As strange as this experience was, these folks routinely did quite well under very unusual circumstances.

The story began on a clear and cold morning in January, 1944. On the way back to Crows Landing Air Field after night-time training excercises, a SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bomber crashed for unknown reasons into a river floodplain on the California coast. Because the floodplain was a large mudflat at the time, it took several days for Navy personnel to reach the plane and recover what they could of the plane and the bodies of the pilot and the gunner/radioman. Soon thereafter mud from the river’s flooding covered the plane wreckage that had remained, and the plane crash faded into a vague (or, as I would soon learn, sometimes greatly exaggerated) memory, and was finally forgotten by all but those who witnessed the crash…

…until July of 2007, when a construction crew hit the plane with a backhoe. Initially, the crew thought that they had hit a buried garbage pile – a not uncommon occurrence in the largely rural area – but the smell of petroleum and the nature of the material that they had hit soon convinced them otherwise. Shortly after this, my boss was called in to have a look, and it was quickly apparent that the crew had hit a mid-20th century plane wreck, complete with bullets indicating that it was a military plane. My boss consulted with the appropriate government agencies, and then returned to the office where he and I began working out a strategy for recovering plane wreckage and possible human remains.

For the usual red-tape reasons, it was a couple of weeks before we could begin work. In the interim, a person who remains unknown to this day managed to get their hands on a backhoe, and raided the crash site. The construction crew was abuzz with claims about the reason why the thief had stopped digging when they did. Whether these claims were supposition on their part or a whether a member of the construction crew knew who the thief was, I do not know. Regardless. This incident resulted in the construction of a temporary chain-link fence around the crash site, and the fence was successful in keeping further thieves away.

The following week, my boss and I met with Alison Galloway, the professor of forensic anthropology at UC Santa Cruz in order to discuss our plan for recovering remains with her. In all, she thought our plan was decent and workable – however, she cautioned us that we should have rubber gloves on hand. You see, when human fat is buried under the right circumstances, it can saponify, preserving it and some of the tissue in or around it ( rather gruseome site - you can look it up on the internet if you want to see some examples, but my advice is that you not do so). So, Dr. Galloway was warning us that we might run into this, and as a result, we should have appropriate protective equipment – i.e. rubber gloves. Thankfully, these ultimately proved unnecessary, and the remains we did were handled with appropriate care and respect - not an easy task considering much of what was going on around us.

Needless to say, the next time I spoke with my sister, who is studying to be a mortician, I told her of the professor's advice. She then posted a recap of our discussion on her blog. A few readers contacted her asking if I was single. The moral of the story – my sister’s blog attracts some freaky people.

The next day, my boss and I headed over to the job site in order to see what there was to see and adjust our plans accordingly. While there, we observed portions of the plane, old bullets, and pieces of silk from a parachute. We also observed the representative of our client, the construction proponent, in a bit of an odd mood.

As it happens, the representative had stopped at a nearby gas station to fill up her tank when she saw someone get out of a parked car and approach her – it was a reporter for the local newspaper. Turns out he’d been sitting in the gas station, waiting to see someone that he knew was connected with the plane wreckage, and now he had someone. He began asking questions that she was not prepared to answer, not because she was being tight-lipped, but because at this stage we didn’t really know anything yet. We had an idea of where the plane had come from (having found newspaper articles about the crash), but we had not yet found anything to clearly identify the plane as the one in the articles. I don’t know what exactly passed between the two of them, but our client’s rep was clearly somewhat non-plussed when we met up with her.

Around the time that she was telling us this story, two police cruisers pulled up, and out stepped four Sherriff’s deputies. And on their heels came the reporter. The representative spoke with the reporter, while my boss and I discussed with the deputies the process of dealing with what was after all an archaeological site, though admittedly a very strange one. After we had finished, the representative came back to speak with us, and the deputies went to speak with the reporters. The deputies explained the documentation and recovery process in which we were about to engage, and the reporter diligently wrote it down.

The next day, one of my coworkers came in and handed me a newspaper. The paper had a story on the plane, and the story implied that the plan for dealing with the wreckage was the Sherriff’s idea, and that my boss had little to do with it. So it goes.

After a few more days of prep, it was time for us to begin working. I’ll start that part of the story in Part 2.

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