At the Mortuary:

A friend had shared this Buzzfeed interview, which is quite powerful, disturbing and enlightening at the same time. It is done with a mortuary worker who identified victims of the July 7th, 2005 attacks.

Carla Valentine, a mortuary worker in Liverpool, England, was one of 15 people who worked on body identification in the aftermath of the July 7th attacks. At the time, she was an APT (Assistant Pathology Technician). In addition to the APT staff, there were also counselors, helpline staff, coroner’s officers, and CSI staff.

“The remains were from human-sized – pretty much complete, or without a head or a leg – to going down to just a torso. Then we got to the point where we had to identify tiny fragments. The coroner said that we were wanted to identify every fragment that was over two inches square. But the problem was, there were lots of things like chicken bones down there, because people might eat fried chicken and just throw the bones down. Or there were rats that had died, and pigeons that had got stuck. So there were a few anthropologists in the mortuary as well, boiling the flesh off tiny bones to figure out if they were human.”

On unique markings:

“We’d tick them as we identified them, and I remember looking at one of the pictures – it was a girl in a bikini, and she had this really specific belly-button piercing. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s over there. We’ve just opened her up.’ Then there was a photo of a guy wearing glasses, and he was wearing the exact same glasses when he came in.”

On media protocol:

“We weren’t supposed to do things like come out of the mortuary and walk across the grass in our scrubs, because the TV cameras were always filming,” she said. “It was somehow offensive if they saw us in them, even though doctors wear them.”

On dealing with families, and counseling staff:

Sometimes it’s best to talk them out of it entirely. “We would have to say to the family members that they won’t recognise their family member and it really isn’t worth it, and we’ll do as much as we can to put them off having the viewing,” she says. “If they insist on it, we have to make them sign a waiver that basically says please don’t sue us if you’re traumatised.

Other APTs became viewing counselors, and grief-stricken family members responded as anyone would: with horror, with disbelief, with denial. The APT who was doing the make-up had a nervous breakdown and had to leave.

Valentine says she’s not a grief counsellor, and in her work and writing she deliberately stays away from anything to do with end-of-life care or grief. She has no idea how beneficial it would have been to the families. All she knows is that people were screaming “no, this isn’t him”, that they were knocking bodies over in the viewing suite.

On why she volunteered for this job:

“I just wanted to feel useful. I didn’t just want to be one of those people who’s just watching TV and going, ‘Isn’t this terrible, I’m now afraid to go on the tube.’ I wanted to actually do something and help. It was good to feel part of something that was really important. I’d do it again, if I had to.”

Read the rest of the interview here:


Disasters and Intersectionality:

In the aftermath of the crash of American Airlines 587, it soon became known that up to 230 of the 265 victims were ethnic Dominicans. This disaster in a sense, became an exercise in intersectionality.

One of the first intersections was not just on an ethnic level, but on a class level as well. The vast majority of the victims were poorer, mostly immigrant Dominicans, many who lived in poverty but saved every spare penny they could to journey to their homeland.

Others simply cannot afford a trip that can cost more than $600. But countless thousands go as often as they can, some every month.

Another issue within intersectionality, was the immigration status of many of the victims. While most of the children on board the flight were US citizens, many of the adults were not, which made notification of relatives, and traveling to recover their loved ones more difficult. But that wasn’t the least of the problems that arose in the aftermath.

Money and compensation soon followed. The average settlement was to be around $1 million per family, only this served to tear families apart.

Under the law applied to all of the victims on board — general maritime law — compensation money was determined based on a victim’s earnings and how many people depended on them, and it went to the victim’s spouse and children. If the person was unmarried and childless, it passed to their parents. In other words, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends and extended family were not entitled to any settlement money—and in large Dominican families this tended to create serious issues.

For some of the Dominican men on board the doomed flight this soon presented itself:

Romantic relationships also created problems. In one case, in which the names were withheld, a man had been separated from his wife for years and was living with a new partner, but the wife received the compensation money when he died in the crash—instead of his current partner. In another case, a victim’s compensation money went to a spouse that they had married for a green card—over the protests of the victim’s family.

The laws governing compensation also affected children. In several cases, children had been living with different parents and had to file separate claims for their parent’s compensation, creating disputes. In one case, a crash victim had been raising his wife’s children, but because they were not legally his children, they received nothing when he was killed in the plane crash.

Another issue that was also noticed, was the pressure on an already financially-stressed, community, one that also had a large proportion of non-English speakers:

...poor families were at a disadvantage when it came to compensation—the poorer the family, the more quickly they tended to settle their cases, often settling for smaller amounts than they deserved. “The people who weren’t so needy could wait longer – and get a little more,”

In a way, this shows, a disaster doesn’t end when the last body is recovered, or when the cause is found. It has ripple effects, it affects different communities differently, and on different levels. It doesn’t end in years, for the process is never ending.