The neighborhood missing child scare a few weeks ago raised a lot of dead body/missing persons questions. The possibility of a child lying in a ditch and never being identified, never allowing closure to the family, would be heartbreaking. If you read “How long has your daughter been missing?“ you know that Kathy was found safe and sound, but what if she hadn’t been? What if it was her body that had been discovered?
We know that thousands of people are listed as missing every year. Sadly, about 40,000 people lie in morgues or potter’s field sections of cemeteries, unidentified, and toe-tagged as Jane or John Doe. The more quickly a body is found, the more likely the identification. What happens if the missing person doesn’t turn up right away? When bodies in the woods or water are found months after they were dumped there, experts have to be brought in to make the identifications.
There are several stages of decay that give us information about when a body went missing or about how long it’s been lying there:
*fresh – the body is found within a few hours of death
*bloat – gases build up in the body and it can appear quite bloated
*active – body is decaying, losing fluids
*advanced – most of the flesh is gone
*dry – only the skeleton remains, or in some climates the skin has turned leathery & the body is almost mummy-like
The time elapsed between a body being fresh and progressing to dry, can be as little as a week in a desert climate or months in a chilly part of the country.
There are experts who can identify bodies by the bones, or at least use the bones to eliminate possibilities. (i.e. tall people, male or female, etc.)
It is possible to conduct blood typing from the marrow to rule out groups, but that is not conclusive for identification.
Geographical location helps in identification as well, since bodies are usually found reasonably close to where they first went missing.
Why is it that some bodies never get a positive ID?
*cause of death – natural disasters or war (the September 11th plane crashes) sometimes destroy the body beyond recognition
*attempts to thwart the ID – criminals might remove body parts when a crime has been committed
*location of the body – animals will eat the body out in the woods/water making ID more difficult
*sociological – there are no personal effects to aid in identifying a badly decomposed body.
If there is something special about the body (like medical devices that have screws, steel rods, pacemakers, etc.) identification can be much easier. Some of the devices have serial numbers that can be traced back to manufacturers or hospitals. Facial reconstruction technology can also be used, but it is time consuming and expensive. Some software has come on the market that can help. Tattoos, if they are still visible on the body, can also be helpful, if only by eliminating a person from a list of possible matches.
If a body is found in the woods, a forensic anthropologist will go through a series of steps to create a biological profile and ask/answer these questions in the process:
*is it human or not?
*if human – can forensic investigation help?
*if forensic – how old was the person
*if adult – male or female
*other specific information
One interesting detail: Only 70% of the people in the world have 206 bones. The skeleton differs for the other 30%
The information that a Forensic Anthropologist gathers can be used in court cases to prove someone is really dead. This is mainly for the purpose of inheritance, but sometimes to help decide a murder case.
Happily, none of that was necessary in Kathy’s case and all ended well for her and her family, but it’s reassuring to know that there are people qualified to sort through the body’s own evidence and discover who we are, even after death.
For more information about groups that deal in a wide variety of missing persons cases, please go to
*Photo by Patti Phillips
One of our neighbors had a scare last week. Their youngest daughter, Kathy, did not show up for a play date at a friend’s house after school. The friend’s mother became alarmed when her own daughter came home alone, so she called our neighbor right away. It turned out that the two girls had the days mixed up and had gone in different directions. Kathy got bored waiting for someone to pick her up at the curb, so she went back inside the school, and watched an afterschool music rehearsal. It took a couple of hours to sort it all out, and the only calm person during the whole thing was Kathy.
Kathy was missing briefly because of a mix-up and was quickly found because no harm had come to her. Lots of ‘official’ people took the incident seriously and started looking right away. She was safe, just in a place nobody expected her to be.
Up until a few years ago, most police departments in the country had a policy against accepting a ‘missing person’ report until the person had been missing for at least 24 hours. Since 2005, that policy has been changed so that reports can be filed in less than 24 hours with local officials when a person younger than 18 is missing. In all 50 states an AMBER alert can be issued when it is feared that the missing child is in danger.
The AMBER alert stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, and was named for 9 year old Amber Hagerman, abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas in 1996. Amber’s body was found four days after her abduction, and sadly, some children and adults are never found.
There are lots of reasons people can disappear:
*Crime – like kidnapping or murder.
*Conscious decision to leave home – Teenagers most often run away when they cannot cope with the problems at home, at school, or with their parents. Adults leave for similar reasons, and sometimes because their responsibilities seem overwhelming.
*Illness – Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, accidents, and traumas which result in amnesia.
*Wish for a new life – on occasion, adults find a job, form new relationships and just want to start over without any ties to the old life. They feel that it is simpler to disappear.
*Human trafficking – The homeless or social exiles sometimes fall victim to human trafficking and are forced into slave labor or the sex trade.
Nobody is prepared for the disappearance of a close relative. We can cope with the illness or death of our loved ones because we know in general what to expect and usually have a support system, but that is not true with a disappearance. Where do we turn if someone doesn’t come home on time? Or for days, months or years? After we exhaust the local possibilities, one of the groups that is a source of information is NamUs.
NamUs.gov is the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. It is accessible to the public, is free and is often searched by medical examiners, coroners, and law enforcement officials from around the country.
Kathy and her family were very lucky, but if you have a relative that has been missing for a while, and don’t have new leads, try NamUs.
Go to http://www.namus.gov/ for more information about this U.S. Department of Justice program.
One of Kerrian’s Notebook readers sent me a link about a case that may just have been solved in the last few days using NamUs. Check it out:
(WARNING: Some photos may be disturbing to some viewers)
Not long ago, Sheila and I spent a pretty intense afternoon with a group of students and professionals doing a simulation of an explosion and its aftermath at a local campus. Here’s how it played out.
“You have reached 911. What’s the nature of your emergency?”
“A bomb just went off at the campus! There must be a dozen people hurt…there’s blood everywhere…”
Someone – a fellow student or perhaps a passing motorist – had called 911 and while sobbing or yelling the words into the phone, had begun the process to get help to the scene. The caller was kept on the phone in order to get any “who, what and where” details they might have known.
The 911 dispatcher made the appropriate call and told the First Responder, “There’s a possible explosion at the college. There may be multiple injuries.”
In general throughout the USA, the groups that respond will be from the Police/Sheriff, Fire, and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Departments in the area. The unit that responds first is the First Responder and it is their responsibility to secure the scene. When the Law Enforcement agency arrives, they will determine if they are looking at a crime scene or whether something has accidentally exploded. In both cases, a perimeter is established.
If it is a crime scene, then access inside the perimeter will be limited to essential personnel and a sign in/out log will be used. An officer will guard the access point as long as is needed. This insures that evidence can be preserved as much as possible and that curious onlookers will not get in the way of either treatment of the victims or investigation of the scene.
Multiple victims, multiple injuries, an explosion and several agencies involved? How do they keep from tripping over each other? How do they know what to do next?
Each of the groups has a Command person in charge of that group. In addition, an Incident Commander is in charge of the entire scene, coordinating the efforts of everybody concerned.
Victims are prioritized by type of wound, and then tagged with a card that identifies the level of injury, before they are eligible for transport. In general, the tag colors indicate:
*Black tags – not breathing
*Red tags – will die if not treated immediately, but still breathing on own
*Yellow tags – broken bones, but alert
The ones having sustained the most serious injuries and who have the greatest likelihood of survival, are treated and transported first by EMS Transport Command.
Other victims who have superficial cuts and abrasions are treated at the scene and released from care.
One of the simulation victims had a piece of glass ‘stuck’ in her arm as a result of being too close to windows that shattered during the explosion. The EMS gal treating her explained that the glass would keep the wound from bleeding until the victim reached the hospital. Basically, it was plugging the hole in her arm. If the police considered the glass a piece of evidence, it would be collected, bagged and tagged at the hospital. The piece of glass would only be removed at the scene if the patient could not breathe or if it got in the way of doing CPR. Since the glass was in her arm, it was left there and bandages were wrapped around it.
The Incident Commander explained that the first priority was the treatment of the patients and that all evidence on (or in) the victims would be collected later at the hospital. The EMS does not remove anything from the scene if they can help it.
The police began to take statements from the witnesses after treatment was in progress, but prioritized the questioning – least hurt, most alert, were questioned first. The EMS people are under HIIPA rules, so are not allowed to share any information they see or gather from the victims being treated. The police have to get that info on their own. At some point, the law enforcement officers would obtain an order for medical records of the person who caused the explosion.
Sadly, one of the victims ‘died’ during the simulation, as would happen in real life. This lady did not make it because her injuries were so severe. (only a simulation – that’s a great makeup job)
If all this were really happening, area airports and highways would be shut down until the threat level was determined. Was it an accident in a lab? Or was it a terrorist action? Unless the investigators get lucky and somebody confesses or does the ‘big reveal’ right at the scene, the truth is, that at an hour after the initial explosion, all that is known for sure is that lots of people have been hurt.
Sheila and I were impressed with how well the simulation went and how well organized it was. Great experience for us to see how a well-trained group can bring sanity to a potentially chaotic situation.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at a real simulation conducted in Guilford County, NC at the Writers’ Police Academy.
*Sheila and Charlie Kerrian are fictional characters, but the simulation actually took place.