Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist



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“What’s going on?” I asked. There was an angry edge to my voice as I watched the bodies being laid on the floor — two hundred and twenty eight of them.

“I don’t know, Doc,” answered Kaholo, my pathology assistant, as he put on a butcher’s apron. His torso was thick and so were his biceps. He was having trouble tying the belt around himself.

“Here, let me,” I said, securing the knot. He turned to face me.

“Boss’ orders. ‘Lay them out’,” Kaholo said, “so that’s what I’m doing. Something went down with the Korean guys that were here earlier.” He was referring to the government officials that had met with our commander that afternoon. I had seen the group crammed into the only air-conditioned office at the end of the hangar.

I sat down on a folding metal chair at the pathology station, defined by blue tarp walls strung on aluminum poles. The autopsy table consisted of a large piece of plywood suspended on two saw horses. The only instruments — a scalpel, steak knife, and small cutting board — were laying on top. There was no running water, or garbage disposal. Someone had made a sign post, a la Mash, with our team’s cities on it. Mine said ‘Syracuse 7749 miles’; Kaholo’s read ‘Honolulu 3799.’

It had been an exhausting week since KAL flight 801 crashed into a hillside just outside the airport in Guam. As a territory of the US, Federal investigation teams responded including the one to which I as a forensic pathologist belonged, DMORT — Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

The passengers had been headed for beach vacations and honeymoons, most of them South Korean nationals. The remote location, and airplane wreckage made retrieval of the bodies difficult. The Navy Seabees used earth moving equipment to get to the site while other rescuers descended a ravine on foot to reach the 26 survivors. The dead had been brought out by the military in bucket brigade fashion. Now, they were being laid out on the floor of this makeshift morgue.

The rain beat hard on the metal roof, echoing in the cavernous space. Personnel were hurrying back and forth between the refrigerated trucks and the hangar carrying the decedents in body bags. The workers were drenched just walking the 15 feet between the reefers and the building. It was August, not monsoon season yet in the south Pacific, but the downpour was heavy. Like it had been on the night of the crash.

“Do we have to put them on the floor?” I asked. Two long lines were being set up in the football field-sized room with each corpse placed a few feet from another.

“Not enough gurneys,” Kaholo said.

Traditional forensic identification — fingerprints and dental examinations — had been going very slowly. The next of kin were demanding to see their relatives; they didn’t want to wait for scientific proof. Allowing the family members to identify their loved ones was an attempt to calm them. The process felt foreign to my western mindset.

Kaholo unzipped a bag and folded the top over to expose the head. The older man’s face was bruised, eyes hidden by smeared blood. I walked with my assistant as he continued preparing the other bodies for viewing. A little girl was charred almost to bone, consumed in a jet fuel fire that had burned for hours. Another woman found at the edge of the crash had pink skin, as if she had just taken a dip in a cold lake. She had been flung away but not far enough to escape the smoke. Many others were in bad shape — green, and bloated, from days in the jungle heat. The coolers helped slow but didn’t stop the decomposition process.

There was a smell of rotting flesh that mingled with the odor of burnt tissue, fabric, and plastic. What clothing remained on the bodies was obscured by dried mud, grass, and blood. I felt overwhelmed, like Scarlet O’Hara surveying the wounded from the Battle of Atlanta. If I reached up, I half expected to find a bonnet on my head.

“Are you staying to put them back?“ I asked.

“Yes. Commander said to give them 3 hours. I’ll go grab some dinner,” Kaholo said.

The work shift was over. The government representatives would bring the families through once the staff were gone.

“Mahalo,” I said.


Holding a thick piece of cardboard over my head, I ran to my rental car and got in. Approaching the large metal gates, I flashed my badge to the guard, who waved me through.

It was a winding drive along an access road to the resort hotel where our team was staying. There was no traffic. My headlights were the only illumination. Water poured onto the windshield faster than the wipers could clear it. Cool air from the defroster chilled me.

Suddenly, I felt a bump. Stopping the car, I put the high beams on and saw dozens of frogs hopping in front of me. Getting out of the car, I looked back and saw that I had run over several of the little creatures.

I stood there, rain soaking my clothes, and for the first time since the mass disaster, I cried.

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