People arrived, in groups of twos and threes, faces anxious. Looking rumpled as if they’d slept in the airport after a cancelled flight. Hair lackluster, makeup smeared, skin pale. They spoke in whispers, with an occasional sob. The families of the victims of TWA Flight 800, had come to identify the personal belongings of their loved ones.
Large cafeteria tables displayed dozens of photographs, 8 x 10-inch glossies, laid out one by one. A macabre assortment of images — a gold wedding band inscribed with initials and a date, a piano charm on a broken silver chain, multi-colored tattoos. These were unique objects and distinctive skin markings from the dead travelers.
I stood at the ready, white lab coat over my blue scrubs. My heart raced from the 90-mph police escort to this family center from the morgue. Summer traffic along the LIE had been congested. The state trooper created a lane of his own with sirens, lights, and a depressed accelerator pedal. This was my first mass disaster response, 1996, despite a decade as a forensic pathologist. Never before had I seen so many bodies. Most of my day had been spent inspecting those pulled from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of East Moriches, New York. They had been headed to Rome via Paris from JFK. Many had torn apart on impact, when their jet inexplicably fractured in mid-air 12 minutes after take-off, and plummeted to a wall of water from 15,000 feet.
Standing to the side, I watched as relatives searched for a familiar artifact. Hoping and yet dreading awareness. A slight built man stood close to the table, leaning over. He was alone, in an old-fashioned pin-stripe suit. His hair was black and parted neatly on one side, and he bore a well-groomed mustache. Dressed for a funeral.
“Excuse me,” I said, “do you recognize something here?”
“Scuzzi,” he said, “my english not so good. Italiano?”
“Espanol?” I tried. He smiled nervously and nodded. I gestured for him to follow me to a private room.
He sat rigid on the chair opposite me, looking fixedly at the picture. Then he closed his eyes and handed it to me. It was a simple spider tattoo on an upper right arm. A close-up shot that even had the trichobothria (leg hairs) in focus. There was no way to tell whether the arm was connected to a body. The tag read #202; I would check the case file later.
“Mio fratello,” he said. Mi hermano. My brother.
“Lo siento. I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, the words bitter on my tongue, inadequate. “Is anyone here with you? Familia?” He shook his head. We would need medical or dental records to verify the man was his sibling.
“I came da solo, alone…he was… we were to meet,” the man rested his head in his hands. Hair was thinning on his pate. “We haven’t seen each other…15 years. I was in Roma. Airline flew me here.” It was hard to hear his muffled voice; I strained to listen. “Antonio came to America. I, Francesco, stayed in Italia.” He raised his head, eyes heavy with the weight of the separation.
Standing up, he removed his suit coat, folding and laying it carefully on the chair. Unbuttoning his cuff, he rolled up his right sleeve. It didn’t go high enough without being tight on his muscular arm, so he took off his vest and button-down. He looked bereft standing there in his white undershirt.
Francesco turned to show me his right deltoid. In the same location as the man in the photo, he was sporting an identical 3 x 3-inch mark, complete with spinnerets and eight eyes. The arachnid’s once completely black abdomen had faded to dark gray on both the living and the dead man. There were no other distinguishing inked features — no webs or black widow’s hourglass. They could have been prison designs, symbols of being trapped, or meant as an ominous warning.
“Me and Tony, we got them at the same time,” he said, “Young men. Big shots.” He flexed his biceps for emphasis, then began to cry. “Per favore,” he said as he reached out for the photo. Trembling a little, I handed it to him, tears threatening to spill from my eyes. He held it up next to his arm to compare. “Uguale a. Iguale. Same, same.”
There were many questions to ask about Antonio’s health, life, parents, and children for comparison DNA testing, part of a complete postmortem interview. Instead, I walked over and hugged Francesco.
“Tranquilo,” I murmured. He put his forehead on my shoulder and continued to cry — for his brother’s death, lost years, the memory of his childhood, the spider tattoo.
The other 229 identifications would have to wait a few minutes.