Their grim task stretched across three city blocks, through backyards and swimming pools, across charred rooftops and the broken pieces of a 28-ton jetliner: the retrieval of Aeromexico Flight 498's passengers and those left dead on the ground below.
As of Tuesday, Los Angeles County coroner's officials had completed recovery efforts in the Cerritos neighborhood and were gearing up for the massive--and tedious--job of identifying them and sending them home.
"Everybody keeps saying they believe there's this many bodies, they believe that's who they were. We can't live in the world of believe. Ours is going to be a world of death certificates. You start with bodies: What do you have, who was it, what caused it?" coroner's spokesman Bill Gold said of the county's largest identification effort in recent history.
Remains of 3 Identified
By late Tuesday, the remains of the three occupants of the small Piper aircraft that collided with the Aeromexico jet had been identified through fingerprints by the coroner's office as pilot William K. Kramer, 53, his wife, Kathleen, and daughter, Caroline.
And from the unsettling and confusing wreckage of the jet crash, a team of forensic pathologists, medical experts, dentists and law enforcement officials began the painstaking detective work of matching clues--perhaps a ruby ring still on a hand, a tennis shoe, evidence of an earlier hip fracture--with information provided by families of the dead.
San Diego officials followed a similar trail of clues over a period of four weeks to identify passengers from the 1978 collision of a PSA jet and a small plane a few miles from Lindbergh Field--a crash that San Diego County Coroner David Stark said was "remarkably similar" to the Cerritos crash in terms of the distribution of debris and the job ahead for the coroner.
"I think the message to the public based on our experience is the chances of a high percentage of identification are very good, but it will take time," Stark said.
While San Diego coroner's officials sifted by hand through a staggering amount of data available on the PSA jet's 144 passengers, the Los Angeles County coroner's office has available a new computer program--to be tested for the first time with this week's air disaster--that will allow available information on victims to be matched instantly with remains.
The Coroner Automated Response Emergency System was developed in Orange County in 1983 to help sheriff's investigators piece together evidence in a string of murders believed to have been committed by ex-Marine Randy Kraft. But Orange County Deputy Coroner Jim Beisner said coroner's officials quickly realized that it could be "even more valuable in a disaster."
Information obtained from relatives is entered into the computer: What kind of clothes was the victim wearing? Was he wearing a certain kind of watch? Had she had a recent operation, such as a gall bladder removal or hysterectomy? Dental records are obtained. The FBI's seven-member fingerprint team looks up print records.
Then, coroner's investigators punch any information available on what may be only fragmentary body parts. Then the computer is asked to compare. "The computer will come back and tell you, it's either Smith, Brown or Jones, but it's most likely Smith," Stark said.
In San Diego, remains of 140 of the PSA jet's 144 passengers were positively identified. It could be positively determined that three of the remaining passengers had boarded the aircraft, and they were presumed dead. The fourth was the pilot.
But part of what made the job easy was the fact that "everybody on the plane was who they said they were," something which may not be the case in a flight from Mexico to the United States, Stark said. Moreover, Mexican officials do not keep fingerprint records as thorough as those that figured in the identification of the San Diego crash victims, he said.
More than simple body identification is at stake. An early examination of the body of the Piper pilot, for example, revealed that he had probably suffered a heart attack prior to the collision with the Aeromexico jet. And though there is slim chance of surviving so violent a crash, coroner's crash investigations often shed light on cabin safety measures that can provide better protection for future passengers.
"But most of all, it's for the families," Stark said. "They want to be very certain that their family member is dead. . . . so that they can get on with their lives."