Simulated plane crash investigated at Rockport
Rockport reservoir was busy Saturday as about 80 people scoured the scene of an simulated airplane crash to begin identifying the dead while others recovered a body from inside a truck.
"What happens at Rockport stays at Rockport," Summit County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Alan Siddoway joked.
Actually, the investigations were drills, designed to teach emergency responders how to treat delicate crime scenes.
Siddoway helps command a regional arm of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT, which includes members from Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota.
On Saturday, the team used 20 acres owned by Siddoway near the Rockport shore to practice ways to conduct death investigations and how to properly recover human remains.
"Every scene we go to is a homicide until we prove that it’s not," explained Siddoway, who was a member of DMORT teams that helped identify victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
Training in the rugged foothills of the Uinta Mountains was good practice for the team, said DMORT member Mark Stratmoen, a coroner in Riverton, Wyo.
"Consider this a new scene," Stratmoen told DMORT volunteers before they began marking evidence at a simulated plane crash that included small trinkets and chunks of raw meat. "Local authorities have said, ‘We’re swamped. We don’t have anybody to do it.’"
When heavy casualties from a disaster overwhelm local agencies, the federal Department of Health and Human Services activates DMORT teams comprised of forensic practitioners like police officers, corners and morticians, to help identify the dead.
"If it’s a small missing person case, there is no reason to have us in there," Stratmoen said.
He explained that teams use small, multi-colored flags to mark unnatural items found at disaster scenes.
"Anything that is not native to the scene," he said. "That beer can, could be old. That beer can, could be new and it could have DNA on it."
Evidence shouldn’t be handled, Stratmoen stressed.
"You really have to approach everything as evidence. It may be significant, maybe not. That’s not for us to determine the significance," he said, grimly adding that body parts are often scattered at air crashes. "It’s a search and recovery for us."
During another drill, trainees tried to revive an unresponsive person inside a car when they found an explosive device.
"The bomb tech came in and took away the bomb," Rich Lipich, a DMORT member from Colorado, told the team during the exercise.
Meanwhile, more than 1,200 DMORT volunteers nationwide assist with efforts like search and recovery, mobile morgue operation, remains identification and scene documentation.
DMORT members most often responded to air crashes until Sept. 11 "took our innocence," Siddoway said.
"We assisted the office of the chief medical examiner in New York City and then obviously (Hurricanes) Katrina and Rita further broadened our horizons and mission," he said. "It showed us that the scope of our mission is larger just an air disaster."
Anita Lewis, Brent Ovard and Travis English were influential in shaping how residents interact with the county.