Sixty years ago, a small plane carrying twenty-five people -- including two FBI employees -- crashed in a cornfield in Virginia, killing all on board. FBI representatives were sent to the crash site to claim FBI property and to offer whatever help they could. Upon their arrival the representatives found total chaos -- no one seemed to know what to do. One major problem? Identifying the victims. So the FBI offered its fingerprinting expertise and was able to positively identify eight of the twenty-five victims.
The Virginia plane crash clearly demonstrated a need for a national "disaster squad" -- experts ready to travel to the scene of a disaster at a moment's notice to assist local authorities in identifying victims. Thus, the FBI Disaster Squad was born.
Today, as it has been for the past sixty years, this humanitarian service provided by the FBI is free of charge. During the 1990s, this elite group of experts was involved in many high-profile incidents, both in the United States and abroad, from Desert Storm; Waco, Texas; the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building; the Value Jet plane crash into the Florida Everglades; the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia; TWA Flight 800; and Egypt Air Flight 990.
The squad's area of expertise is varied and includes thorough knowledge of fingerprint identification methods, forensic dentistry, forensic anthropology, and the proper operational procedures to follow after a disaster. Requests for Disaster Squad assistance come from many different sources, including a ranking law enforcement official at a disaster scene, a medical examiner or coroner in charge of victim identification, a ranking official of a public transportation carrier, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or a foreign government through the State Department (in foreign disasters involving U.S. citizens). During its on-site work, the squad works with various agencies, including the FAA, NTSB, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), local Medical Examiners Offices, and the local FBI field office.
Why is it so important to
positively identify a victim? Beyond the most obvious reason
-- so that the family of the victim can claim the remains and
give them a proper burial -- there are also economic and legal
reasons to do so. Payment of insurance, settlement of estates,
and dissolution of business partnerships all depend on the person
in question being positively identified.
The Human Factor
When they are called on to assist, squad members act in appropriate roles -- "lead supervisors" have multiple disaster scene experience; "experienced" members have worked on two more scenes; and "limited" members have one disaster under their belt. Squad members are sent out on a rotating basis. The number of people sent and the time spent working on a disaster scene (from two days up to three weeks) vary depending on the severity of the incident.
All squad members have to keep up with necessary immunizations to travel overseas, and they have physicals every other year. Because of the grisly nature their work, Disaster Squad members receive critical stress debriefings when they return from a site. Depending upon the severity and size of a disaster, the critical stress counselor can travel to the site of a disaster to be immediately available to squad members if necessary. The squad works closely with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at Headquarters as well.
Working on disasters, though,
is only a small part of their duties. While at Headquarters in
Washington, DC, these specialists are kept busy with a continuous
stream of latent fingerprint work submitted by law enforcement
agencies from around the country.
Modern Take on a
However, advances in automation during the 1990s have sped up the actual identification process. Searching FBI databases -- like the Integrated Automated Fingerpring Identification System (IAFIS) -- and state and local databases now takes a matter of hours instead of days, weeks, or even months.
It is interesting to note
that the states of California and Texas fingerprint everyone
who applies for a driver's license in those states. Databases
like these could be invaluable in identifying disaster victims
-- it means law enforcement would not be limited to searching
databases containing prints of criminals or of individuals who
have submitted civil fingerprint cards at one time or another.
(No word on whether other states may be inclined to follow the
leads of California and Texas.)
Disaster Squad Accomplishments
On January 31, 2000, members of the squad traveled to the California coast to assist in the identification of victims from the Alaskan Airlines crash. The squad examined 115 body parts and made positive identification of 24 individuals by finger or foot prints.
On April 12, 2000, squad members traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to assist in identifying victims from the April 2000 crash of a military aircraft. The crash happened during a training mission in Arizona, killing all 19 individuals on board. Remains were transported to Dover, and the squad was able to obtain fingerprints from 10 bodies and positively identify all 10 based on the prints. The remaining victims were identified by dental records, DNA, or other means.