The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, December 15, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 2

Welcome to a series of entries on one of the most bizarre projects that I have been involved with. This is Part 2, which involves corpse-sniffing dogs and my car becoming a human remains transport. Go here for Part 1, which describes how this all began. If you've already read Part 2, go here for Part 3.


One of the first steps in executing our plan for recovering the human remains from the wreckage was bringing in trained forensics dogs and their equally trained (and very professional) handlers. These folks were really quite patient and delightful to work with. Unfortunately, lack of sleep and an abundance of stress made me not so pleasant, and I hope that I did not leave a permanently bad impression, though I suspect I may have.

Regardless, these folks claimed that the dogs could not only find relatively recent bodies, but also could find older bone. I was skeptical of this claim, and the first day was certainly inauspicious. The dogs were having a good deal of difficulty finding anything, which we later learned was due to the large amount of petroleum vapor in the air (the smell was overpowering even for those of us who don’t have sensitive noses). When the dogs returned a few days later, they pin-pointed even small pieces of bone with an almost eerie accuracy and sped us up considerably. However, on that first day, we were left with little to go on. So, we began to work out which piles of excavated soil belonged with the layer that contained the wreckage, and which belonged to the pile that contained only the over-burden.

I was also short-staffed on that first day. Our original plan had been to sort through the soil containing the materials by hand, scraping soil out of the pile with our trowels and looking for bone. We had underestimated the amount of soil that we would have to deal with, or over-estimated our soil-scraping prowess. Regardless, we moved more slowly than we had previously assumed. Luckily, we were assisted by the forensic professor from the university and her 14 year-old daughter, who proved to be quite handy with the trowel and bone identification.

Please indulge me in a bit of an aside. I remember that, when I was 14, parental bonding usually took the form of catching a movie, going for a walk, or working on some sort of craft project together. I valued these experiences, certainly, and see their value more and more the older I get. However, I have to say, I would probably have much clearer memories of these events (not to mention better stories) if I had helped my parents recover corpses. I can just see the high-school hallway discussions now:

Teen 1: “So, my dad and I went out camping this weekend. It was okay. What did you do?”

Teen 2: “I helped my mom recover a corpse from a field, and then collected specimens from the maggot population to determine time of death. We then handed them over to the coronerwith field observation notes to further determine whether the death was due to a fall, or a screwdriver sticking out of the torso.”

Teen 1: “Uuuhhhhmmm…yeah…”

…ahh, those halcyon days of youth. But I digress…

At any rate, the professor and her daughter were extremely helpful and their participation was greatly appreciated. However, I decided by the end of the day that we would return to the field on the second day with the standard archaeological screens and an additional field technician (which would, with the help of the professor and two graduate students, speed us up and increase our accuracy immensely).

During the course of the day, we also encountered numerous unfired bullets from the plane’s machine guns – this was after a military unexploded ordnance “expert” surveyed the scene and announced that there were no bullets in the area. Several people, none of them experts themselves, assured me that old bullets were harmless – but after hearing the stories of a former military police officer who had some experience with UXO, I was not inclined to take their word for it. We took each bullet and put it in a bag that was a good distance away from us, and behind a thick berm.

Early in the day, a coroner’s detective came out to the field to talk with us about proper treatment of the human remains that we anticipated encountering. At the end of the day, I called the detective, sent the rest of the crew home, and waited in the field for the detective to arrive. It was kind of nice, it was quiet, I could hear the breeze blowing over the strawberry fields, and I got my first quiet rest for the day. A short while later, I saw the Sherriff’s cruiser coming up the dirt road towards where I was working. At the wheel of the car was the detective from earlier in the day.

After the car parked, the detective got out and walked towards the wreckage. I joined him, and we spoke for a few minutes about what had occurred that day and what my plans were for the rest of the week. He had no problem with my change in approach, and was pleased with the methods that we intended to implement. After we had finished that, I showed him the boxes that contained the material that we had recovered that day, and I asked if he wanted me to put the boxes int eh car that he had brought.


I was a bit dumbfounded. After all, human remains go to the coroner – why was the coroner telling me that he didn’t want them in the car? Was he expected some other vehicle to do the pick up? A coroner’s van? An unmarked vehicle? An airlift? A deer-drawn sleigh looking for some extra money during the off-season, perhaps? So, I asked “what would you like me to do with them?”

“Well,” the detective looked off and appeared to be somewhat annoyed, though it wasn’t clear what he was annoyed with, “you only have a small portion of what is in there” he indicated the partially-buried wreckage.


“So, you will have more in the next few days.”


“It makes more sense for us to take custody all at once than to take it in parts.”

While the detective was making sense, I wasn’t keen on transporting relatively recent body parts around. Still, I didn’t know what else to say, so I said “I see.”

“So, you should keep ahold of them until you’re finished out here. Also, that’ll give us time to work things out with the Navy. They haven’t wanted to get involved yet, and that’s pretty strange.”

And so my car – a strangely-colored Ford Escort hatchback – become a human remains transport. There are few people who have carried human remains around in their trunks, and fewer still, I’ll wager, who did so at the instructions of the coroner’s office.

The detective left, and I had to wait for another hour yet for a deputy to show up and take possession of the unfired bullets. When he arrived, he had a few other deputies with him. When they first showed up, they seemed to be going out of their way to appear macho and in charge – hips thrust forward, walking with exaggerated steps, hands on their hips, next to their guns and pepper spray (no coincidence there, I suspect). But after a few minutes out there, they all took on a demeanor more like excited schoolboys, asking questions about the plane crash, what we know the plane, of the pilot and gunner, and of the processes that resulted in the plane being buried. In all, they were pretty cool guys who just needed to remember that they don’t need to try to intimidate everyone that they encounter. Regardless, by the end of their visit, they had decided to work the crash site into the night-time patrols of the area, meaning that it would have better security.

And with that, the deputies left, and I followed. I headed back to the office to drop stuff off, then I headed home for a shower. After the shower, I headed over to a friend’s house for the evening. I sat down at the table next to another visitor – a friend named Thomas. Thomas had been on an internet chat site earlier in the day, and someone had brought up the plane crash – it was a fairly prominent local news story. In the ensuing discussion, someone had begun to comment that the plane crash “sure sounded like the work of a Japanese sleeper cell” (in fact, when one knows the facts, it sounds more like mechanical failure) and then proceeded to use this to try to produce a justification for the Japanese internment. It’s amazing how the paranoid delusions of the present can be used to justify the crimes of the past.

And so ended the first day. The rest of the week was a bit of a blur, and I should be able to cover it in one or two more entries, but the first day stands out in my memory. So, look out soon for Part 3.


Evan Davis said...

Did you ever surmise what was taken from the site?

Anthroslug said...

No - unfortunately, there was no clear record of what had been recovered in 1943, and what was left was essentially flattened. So it was not possible to determine what the thief took, we just know that they had been digging around in the wreckage, and left in a hurry.

Anonymous said...

It would be funny if you'd been pulled over and searched and the cop found the box of remains. Not funny for you, but funny for us. I hope you had documentation allowing you to carry those remains around.

Anthroslug said...

I didn't hae documentation as such - but I did have the detective's business card with me, and kept it on the dash board in case I got pulled over.