28 Seconds
Part Two: The soda can
Page 2
As investigators prepared to get started on the hill in Hopewell Township, Tom Haueter, the NTSB's chief investigator, gave them advice about dealing with the grisly scene.

"Concentrate on metal, not on people."

The normally tranquil forest looked like the site of a military invasion. Helicopters pounded overhead as trucks from the National Guard, the Salvation Army, USAir and Allegheny County roared up the gravel road. Haueter's 100 investigators wore rubber suits and surgical masks to protect themselves from the blood that splattered the site.

Picking through the wreckage, they got the first clues.

The engine fan blades were bent backward from the way they rotated, which meant the engines were running when the plane struck the hill. That ruled out engine problems.

In the mangled cockpit, the airspeed indicator was at 264 knots – about 300 mph – the plane's speed at impact.

Passenger belongings littered the woods: boxer shorts with red diamonds, a flight attendant's apron, a Hooters T-shirt, a Purdue University sweat shirt.

There were lots of books: Forrest Gump, the Pocket Prayer Book, Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be, a John Grisham novel, a management training manual called Firing Up Commitments During Organizational Change and the Bible.

And everyday stuff: a garage door opener, family snapshots, a teddy bear, a Swiss Army knife, pocket calculators, a rosary.

Full-size body bags arrived for the victims, but the bodies were in so many pieces that most were taken from the hill in 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bags.

The site was considered a biohazard. Investigators and wreckage were sprayed with a Clorox solution when they left the hill. Summer downpours and the hot rubber suits made for wretched working conditions. The smell of bleach and the unforgettable odor of death made a suffocating stench. Investigators dabbed cologne, orange juice or Vicks VapoRub on their surgical masks to hide the odor. Haueter smeared his mustache with Tiger Balm, a sweet-smelling ointment.

Wayne Tatalovich, the Beaver County coroner, converted an Air Force Reserve hangar into a giant morgue. Identifying the victims went slowly. There were 132 people on the plane, but 2,000 Ziploc bags.

The tiny coroner's office was overwhelmed by the job, despite help from dozens of volunteer doctors and dentists. Tatalovich worked to keep the process as dignified as possible. Someone said prayers over the hangar's PA system. Before wallets were returned to family members, Tatalovich replaced the passengers' bloodstained money with new bills.

photo
Brett wore Joan’s engagement ring on a chain around his neck. It hurt when he’d roll over in bed and the prongs would dig into his chest. But he didn’t repair it. He wanted the ring exactly as it was found at the crash site.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
For the next three weeks, a committee of pathologists met every day to decide if they had enough to identify a body. The doctors usually relied on dental records and fingerprints. When those weren't available, the pathologists got creative, using the serial number on an artificial hip or wires in chest bones from open-heart surgery.

A USAir pilot volunteering in the morgue sent Brett photographs of engagement rings from several victims, but Joan's ring was not among them.

Brett was in Melrose, Iowa, for another memorial service in Joan's honor, when the pilot called again. It had been nearly three weeks since the crash; Brett was losing patience.

"Look," he told the pilot, "it's got two triangular-shaped diamonds, two oval-shaped ones and a marquise in the center. It's very unique." The pilot promised to call back.

The phone rang a few minutes later.

"Did she have a very thin, simple gold band for a wedding ring?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Van Bortel. We've identified your wife."

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