By Debbie Hersman
The loss of a loved one in a transportation accident is a tragedy beyond words. Knowing that the process of identifying them is being done by compassionate professionals from one of our federal agency partners is a small comfort afforded to family members. The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), an integral part of the National Disaster Medical System managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, has played that critical role in providing services in 14 transportation accidents since 1999.
The legal requirement for conducting identifications resides with the medical examiner or coroner in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. However, transportation disasters with high numbers of fatally-injured victims often overwhelm the capabilities of smaller medical examiner/coroner offices. Trauma, fire, and other factors can also introduce unique challenges requiring a multi-agency response to conduct victim recovery and identification. To assist with these challenges, the NTSB exercises its legal authority to coordinate resources and facilitate the identification process—with resources like those provided by DMORT.
DMORT is comprised of private citizens with expertise in large-scale forensic identification responses. Team members are specialists in the areas of forensic pathology, forensic dentistry, forensic anthropology, fingerprint analysis, x-ray interpretation, and DNA analysis. Like our accident go-team, they are able to travel on short notice once notified by NTSB that their services are needed. Once on scene, DMORT personnel augment the resources of the medical examiner or coroner by providing critical expertise, logistical and operations support, and when necessary, one or more Disaster Portable Morgue Units, a forensics laboratory on wheels that are particularly useful in responding to remote accident scenes.
I’ve met with numerous family members affected by the tragic loss of a loved one. And although it is easy to focus on the legal requirements (death certification, estate settlement, insurance claims) that often depend on victim identification, it is the humanitarian element that always leaves the most lasting impression. DMORT’s readiness to step forward in the wake of disaster aids us tremendously in our efforts to meet the needs of victims and their families. On behalf of the NTSB, I want to acknowledge their compassionate spirit and willingness to support this critical aspect of our work.