The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 3

This is part 3 of this series. If you have not already, you may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.


As compared to the first day, the rest of the time out there was a bit of a blur. However, a few specific instances do stand out in my mind.

On the third day of work, I was standing in the trench in which the wreckage had been encountered when I became aware of the shadows of two men standing over me. Looking up, I saw that they were both in their 60’s or 70’s, dressed casually but well, and looking down at me with some intensity. I climbed out of the pit, exited the fencing, and introduced myself.

It turned out that these two had both been children at the time of the plane crash, and had lived in the neighborhood. They told me of the local gossip that had followed in the wake of the plane crash – including predictably gruesome (but probably false) details of the condition of the bodies, passed around on the school’s playground, of course. One of them also told me that he had heard that two fighter planes had had a mid-air collision, and that this was the cause of the crash, while the other had heard it was a single plane. As I listened to their story, it became clear that I was seeing the last vestiges of the formation of an urban legend. For the kids on the playground, it wasn’t enough that a plane had crashed, it had to be two fighter planes hitting each other mid-air. And it wasn’t enough that bodies were removed, they had to invent grisly details involving how they were removed.

They gave me a lot of information about the local reaction to the crash, though, and they were rather fascinating individuals in their own rights, once they got onto subjects other than the plane crash. All in all, I was happy that they had come to visit.

We closed out the day, and I sent the crew home. I once again had to spend time waiting for deputies to show up and take un-fired bullets off of my hands. With that, I went home.

The next morning, I noticed that my crew members seemed to be a bit frazzled and tired. At first I made nothing of it, but as the day wore on, we got to talking. It turned out that they had been having trouble sleeping due to nightmares. The nightmares varied, but all of them included visions of or interactions with the pilot and gunner of the plane. This is, perhaps, not surprising – while we are all accustomed to dealing with human remains, we usually are working with the remains of people who have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years, and who had a culture different enough from our own that we don’t feel a greater kinship with them than we do with people that we hear about on the nightly news. These two, however, were from a recent enough period in our own culture’s past that we know many people of their generation, and as a result, we felt closer to them than to other people that we have studied. While this didn’t cause me nightmares (I had one nightmare and it was entirely based around trying to get the project’s report in on time, therefore pretty obviously a standard stress dream), it is understandable that it did have this effect on the other people working on the project.

Later that day, the client rep came back by, and brought with her an aircraft historian and an aircraft crash historian – if the crash historian sounds a little overly-specific to you…well, it does to me too. However, the guy knew his stuff, and was very helpful in aiding us to more narrowly focus our work (helping us to determine which aircraft parts would lack identifying elements, and therefore which parts we need not be too worried about).

The days continued to pass. The client brought a few guests, mostly representatives and important people from local government agencies, to come out and see the project. For the most part, these folks were very respectful and pleasant. On one occasion, I did have to shoo someone away from the screens after they had repeatedly shoved their hands in while my crew and I were attempting to search the screens for material to be recovered. However, they were generally a good group of folks.

Unfortunately, something changed. I don’t know if it was plants coming in to bloom, or simply a change in wind direction, but starting on the third day, I began to have severe problems with hay fever. Every time the wind would blow over the nearby river corridor, my vision would become blurred by eyes that had filled with tears, and my nose began running rather like the nearby river. Medication helped a little, but I spent between 25-50% of any given day in this state, which did not improve my mood. As a result, I was far gruffer and less pleasant than, in truth, I had any right to be. I hope that I didn’t offend anyone too horribly, but I suspect that I did. Unfortunate, but not much I can do about that now.

The last day of field work finally arrived, and the day was chaotic. Numerous people from the client organization were present, members of the general public came by to have a look-see, and the forensic dogs had returned (and did an eerily good job of locating even small pieces of human remains this time). Most of these people did not present any problems, but a few of the over-eager ones kept trying to get inside of the fenced enclosure in which we were working to take photos of the materials that we were recovering. This created a few potential hazards, and I spent a lot of time trying to manage this, and allow my crew to continue working.

One of the stranger moments of this event came when a crew member noticed something unusually shiny on the ground. She bent over to look, and saw that it was a ring. She reached down to pick up the ring, and as it came up, a piece of bone came with it. The ring had never left the finger, and the bone from the finger was still inside. She quickly bagged it, and waved me over to have a look. It was also during this day that we discovered the remains of what appear to be the plane’s logbook, a set of topographic maps, and the wallet of one of the plane’s crew.

It was a busy and difficult enough day, and then the heavy equipment arrived.

A few large chunks of wreckage were still buried, including a part of the fuselage and one of the landing gear. As they were too heavy for the crew to lift, an excavator was called in from the construction site to bring them up. The process was closely supervised by both myself and my boss (who had arrived specifically for this purpose), and we ensured that no material fell away during the process. Needless to say, the sight of the large equipment moving in to place also attracted a number of other spectators – luckily, it also kept them back at a safe distance. This also resulted in the exposure of more of the plane’s rubber fuel bladder, which resulted in the lovely smell of petroleum permeating everything in the vicinity.

Once the last of the wreckage had been brought to the surface, the historians returned along with members of the local historical society, and we began to sort it into material to be subjected to further study (primarily materials that could be used to definitely confirm the plane’s identity).

Once we had finished with the recovery, we took the material back to the lab for further analysis and processing. After a few days of work to make sure that we had separated out all of the human remains, we turned these over to the coroner, and the plane parts were also turned over to the proper authorities. There was talk of re-burying materials where they had been found, but my boss carefully explained to the proponents of this idea that the families of the plane’s crew would probably like to be able to bury their remains elsewhere, and that it was illegal to dispose of human remains in this fashion.

Once we had turned all materials over to the proper authorities, we had to write the report, which meant that we had to determine whether the crash site was eligible for federal, state, or local historical registers. That’s the subject of Part 4.

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