Thursday, December 21, 2017

Necessary Detachment



“Wow, I found a recipe book!  It has a woman’s name on it.  Her name is K….”
“NO NO NO NO!!!” I yell from across the field.  “DO. NOT. SAY. HER. NAME.”  I yell to my teammate.
As I look at the chaos around me, some recognizable, but most, not, I say to myself, I cannot know her name.  I will never be able to finish this assignment if I know her name.

“We had a small aircraft go down in the foothills.  There were no survivors.  NTSB and the Sheriff’s Office have been on scene, and some remains were recovered, but they’d like it if your dog teams could assist with recovering as much as possible from the site.”

Wow.  I was excited.  My first plane crash!  I never in a million years thought I’d ever get to work a plane crash!  I gathered my gear, my dog Thumper, and headed out the door to the scene, an hour’s drive away.  I felt my excitement grow as I got closer.  I imagined the scene, much like many movies I had seen, in my head. I thought; “This will be awesome!”

The pilot of the small aircraft had become disoriented in the fog and ended up upside down.  Thinking he was right side up, he powered up, trying to gain altitude.  Instead, he powered right into the ground.  He, his wife of several decades, and his dog were all killed on impact.

This day, this event, this view, was not awesome.

The scene was atrocious.  Parts of the small plane were everywhere.  The engine had traveled the furthest distance out, and other parts of the plane were all over the hillside, including in the trees.  The damage the fuel had done to the ground and trees was evident as well, covering the grass and the oak trees with a light red hue. 

We surveyed the gruesome scene. None of us, all a part of a volunteer search and rescue team, had ever seen anything like this before.  I wasn’t sure what I expected, but what I saw, and, subsequently, what I experienced, deeply affected me.

I got Thumper and set him out to searching.  A large, jovial mixed breed dog, Thumper was unique on our team. His only search discipline was cadaver work.  I assumed he would be right at home in this environment and we’d make swift work of what was hastily turning into a very nasty job.   Normally a very enthusiastic searcher, his quick, happy movements changed rapidly.  Within a few short minutes, he gave me a tentative alert.  When I asked him to show me, to pinpoint the source, he just turned around, facing the scene and looked at it and then at me.  I got the message loud and clear.

The scent of death was everywhere.

This was going to take longer than I thought.

I had to work this scene unlike any other.  There was so much for him to find, all I could do was watch Thumper work and when he’d dip his head, turn and look at me, I’d check the spot he sniffed.  Sometimes, I could retrieve what he found, other times, another searcher had to because Thumper was moving too far away.

For a long while, there were no recognizable parts. Thumper’s head would dip, and I’d pick up a fragment of bone, or a piece of flesh, its origin unknowable to my eye.  There were pieces of flesh hanging from trees, as well as scattered all over the ground. We found definite skull fragments and surrounding brain matter.    Sometimes, I would intently stare at the slightly larger bone fragments, trying to see if I could decide what they were. 

All the while, in the back of my mind, I knew I was picking up minuscule parts of two humans, but there was no human form so I could keep on going.

“Wow, I found a recipe book!  It has a woman’s name on it.  Her name is K---“

I am hearing this from behind me as I look at the latest thing my dog, along with a teammate's dog, has found.

I am screaming NO! NO! NO! NO! because we are looking at the first piece of flesh that has form.  That is instantly recognizable.  That makes the dozens upon dozens of the little pieces I have been picking up into a human being.

It is an older woman’s hand, up to just beyond the wrist.  It is her left hand.  On her ring finger is a beautiful gold ring with a gorgeous ruby in it, surrounded by diamonds.  A wedding ring.

In the back of my mind, I have known, from the start of the day that we were there to recover as much of this man and woman in this plane crash.  I have known all along that this was a married couple.  I have known that this couple had a family and that this family is grieving and this family deserves answers and to have their loved ones back for proper burial.

In order for me to pick up this hand, the woman’s hand with a wedding ring on the ring finger, I cannot know her name.  I cannot have a human attached to this hand.

For if I know her name, as I pick up her hand and place in the bag I am carrying, the bag that I have been slowly filling with other parts that used to be she and her husband… that hand suddenly has a face.  That face becomes a person.  That person becomes someone’s now deceased family member.  And I am here seeing her in a way no one should ever have to see her.

I cannot know her name or I will not be able to complete my assignment.  The ear, the foot, the eye, will no longer be able to be discovered by me, or picked up by me.

I cannot know her name, because I will not be able to be out here the next time …