EPISODE 21 — Final Flight
In recent weeks, there was an item in the paper, about 2 small paragraphs in length. It was incredibly brief but hit with huge impact. It described an airplane crash in Alaska that killed two families from Greenville, South Carolina. Go ahead; let that soak in for a minute. There were nine people killed between the two families. That is unspeakably tragic. Imagine being a child who went to school with several of the children in that city. It will be very difficult to explain to that child why their classmates will never again be seated in class or on the playground at recess time.
Sometimes CJ is asked what the very worst sort of thing has been to see in her mortuary career. She says they have been many awful sights before her there, but air crash victims rank at #1 or #2 on the list. Why? Because air crashes involve such force upon impact, but on top of this destructive force, there is nearly always incredible heat from fire. Charred bodies are an awful thing to see, smell, or touch. In addition, thermal stress fracturing causes a body to twist and bend into unnatural poses. Sometimes, when there is a face still visible, it is impossible to avoid thoughts of that person’s final agonizing moments on this earth. The faces are frozen in time showing extremely disturbing expressions which incredible pain and terror are easily read. Usually, though, there aren’t faces.
On a hot summer day, CJ was just finishing up work on a case in the prep-room when the intercom rang. Mr. Becker needed her to accompany him to the crematory. Together they rode in the van out to the cemetery, where the crematory was located. It was quite a lovely, if not scorching day. CJ loved being out in the cemetery. On a good day there would be many wild birds, lizards, and even a coyote on occasion. In the evening it would cool with a light breeze and be a tranquil place, indeed.
As they pulled up to the back of the building, CJ’s focus on the work returned. She had no idea what she would be walking into as they entered the large room housing the ‘retort.’ That is an overall word for the massive cremation unit. Mr. Becker’s crematory was only a few years old, so the unit was state-of-the-art. Bright shiny steel with colored buttons and gauges, a digital read-out for the temperature. An electric door opened to reveal a large, smooth brick surface and overhead burners and vents. CJ kept the unit immaculately cleaned; when she finished a body there, she swept every bit of the remains cleanly from the chamber. (Over her short career, CJ would cremate hundreds and hundreds of people.)
They walked over to the small cooler there and Mr. Becker opened the door to reveal a single body bag on the roller. They needed to decide how to best manage the remains inside the bag. CJ gasped when the bag was unzipped…
Mr. Becker explained that this was all that was recovered from a small Cessna crash in the remote desolate region of the county. This was all that was left of a man and his two teenaged boys.
CJ looked incredulously down at an incredible mass of charred remains, in which a phenomenal amount of shrapnel had become embedded. The thoughts that raced through her mind were unreal; she kept mentally trying to picture this ghastly, massive, burned ‘glob’ as ever having been three separate human beings. It was her first time dealing with such a situation. First air crash remains she’d ever laid eyes on.
This was an exceptionally rare situation indeed. How would they handle this? The laws strictly prohibit the commingling of bodies or remains. There were three people here! In one metal-studded unnatural conglomeration. Mr. Becker said the coroner had documented the condition of the bodies from the accident, along with photographic evidence, justifying the necessity for all three to be placed into the retort and cremated together. No laws were being broken this time. Only the laws of nature, perhaps. Mr. Becker left her to go back to the mortuary.
CJ numbly completed the paperwork, placed 3 identification medallions into the retort with the glob of bodies, and began the process of finishing what the fiery crash had not — rendering the mass into bony rubble. When the cycles were complete, CJ swept the remains out of the chamber, realizing that before she could pulverize the bone into a powder, she would first need to hand-pick the shrapnel and metallic bits out. This took a great amount of care and time. She set out three temporary urns, each had their own label affixed, and readied them for filling. She would divide the powder three ways.
As the remains cooled in the large tray, she read the reports and learned that the man and his sons had come to the U.S. on holiday, from Europe. The father was an experienced pilot who rented the newer plane from a coastal airstrip. They were due to reach their destination about 75 miles east of where the crash had occurred. The witnesses in the local area had observed the attempted landing on a private airstrip, and reported seeing the plane overshoot the dirt runway before crashing into a hill. There were no services at this strip and worse, no water or nearby first responders. The plane burst into flames on impact and the three perished in the fiery wreckage. Tears began to roll down CJ’s cheeks as she signed her name on the cremation documents. All of the urns were to be mailed to an address in Europe. The family had come over without the wife and mother, as she had just had a baby, according to some of the notes the coroner had included in the report.
CJ finished up and silently got into the van when Mr. B returned to pick her up. The beautiful summer day in the cemetery had been forgotten. CJ could not get the tragedy of this day’s tasks out of her head. She quietly offered a prayer for the remaining family, her heart aching for the woman who had probably smiled and blown kisses to her husband and boys as they departed for their adventure. She would soon be receiving them in plastic boxes with only her precious memories of them to comfort her in this most sorrowful time of darkness.
©2013, C.S. Thompson.
- 9 passengers dead in Alaska air taxi crash were from S.C. (miamiherald.com)
- Two families perish in Alaska crash (cnn.com)
- A lesson in air safety: out in 90 seconds (ndtv.com)
- Q&A: How does an air crash investigation work? (cnn.com)