‘It was heartbreaking and an experience unlike no other.’
Local coroner who spent 20 days in NYC after 9-11 describes solemn efforts to identify human remains
(Editor’s Note: Scott Schmidt, Orleans County’s chief coroner and a funeral director at Christopher Mitchell Funeral Homes, also is a member of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, which was called into action on Sept. 11, 2001. Schmidt left that day from Orleans County and went to New York City to help collect and identify remains. He was there for 20 days, interviewing family members and helping to carefully catalog human remains. Schmidt shared the following keyote address during a Sept. 11 memorial service in Albion at the Courthouse lawn.)
This day is a time to remember those who died, those who served and those who carry on. Starting at 8:46 a.m., periodically throughout the day, and tonight with our community gathered together again…some 16 years after the horror, disbelief and the shock of September 11, 2001…that very subject…that day…those events, having been burned into our hearts and minds… have enabled most Americans to forever say… “We Remember”.
President George W. Bush said, “We will remember every rescuer who died in honor. We will remember every family that lives in grief. And, we will remember the fire, the ash, the last phone calls and funerals of the children.” As human beings, as Americans and as a resilient nation, we were described by David Levithan like this. “What separates us from the animals, what separates us from the chaos, is…our ability to mourn people we’ve never met.” And then this from the late President John F. Kennedy, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe…to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Most of you know me as the Chief Coroner of Orleans County…or as a Funeral Director for Christopher Mitchell Funeral Homes…or perhaps as the organist at Barre Center Presbyterian Church. Tonight however, Mr. Montello asked me to share what my duties were as a Member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team or DMORT on 9/11/2001. DMORT is a Federal Mortuary Team within the Department of Health and Human Services and is part of the National Disaster Medical System.
DMORTS have at their disposal three Deployable Portable Morgue Units which have state of the art equipment necessary for removing, receiving, processing, embalming, x-raying and identifying human remains following a disaster. Each unit can be set up in a large tent, warehouse or virtually any large structure. The only thing a DPMU requires is a water supply…as generators are part of the equipment inventory. We (DMORT Teams) are activated by a Presidential Declaration or requested by a municipality when disasters occur causing a mass fatality event. I’ve been honored to serve as DMORT Training Officer for FEMA Region 2 since 2003, which includes NY, NJ, PR and the US Virgin Islands. I’m also honored to serve as a member of the Victim Identification Center Team.
As the events of Tuesday September 11, 2001 played out, All 11 DMORT units were deployed…the majority of which traveled to NYC. There was a Team sent to Shanksville, PA and the Military handled the fatalities at the Pentagon. Our duties in NY were to assist the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in the identification process of the remains which were recovered from Ground Zero. In addition to being tasked with staffing the main office of the OCME, we were also tasked with staffing the two temporary receiving morgues directly at ground zero. We also staffed the Family Assistance Center at Pier 93 to assist the NYC Police with interviewing family members trying to find their loved ones.
I spent 14 days in the Family Center, sitting along side various police officers gathering personal information of missing individuals ranging in age from young children to the elderly. Inside the pier was a space the size of 3 football fields. It was filled with various agencies offering assistance in the form of services, food, shelter and money. There were sections devoted to the OCME, the NYPD as well as Salvation Army and the Red Cross. As I stated, I took part in the interviews. I took part in collection of personal effects for DNA sampling and I took part in obtaining swabs for DNA sampling. There were so many people, so many questions that needed to be asked, and sadly…not many answers to be given. It was heartbreaking and an experience unlike no other.
One morning that I’ll never forget began when we arrived and along the perimeter of one of the inside walls were three rows high of stuffed animals…all brand new…from the community of Oklahoma City…who as you may recall, suffered a major terrorist attack when WNY native Timothy McVeigh blew up the Edward R. Murrow Federal Office Building killing hundreds. The people of Oklahoma City wanted to let the people of NY know that they cared and this was one way they could send their love and support.
After my 14th day at the pier, my mission assignment was changed to working alongside a pathologist, anthropologist and several recovery workers in one of the receiving morgues next to the pile at ground zero. Our one and only job was to separate tissue from non-tissue. If it was determined that a specimen of tissue…no matter how large or small…belonged to or could belong to a member of service (meaning a firefighter, police officer or port authority member,) that piece of tissue was placed into a special stretcher called a stokes basket, covered with an American flag and had prayers said over it by one of the chaplains on scene. An air horn would then sound and everyone would come off the pile and form an honor guard while the basket was placed in a FDNY ambulance. The ambulance along with an honor guard of NYPD Motorcycles would then slowly pull out in route to the office of the OCME for identification. As the motorcade pulled away, everyone in the honor guard would stand at attention and salute….and then, they would proceed back to the pile and start the recovery effort all over again…the majority of which was done with strong backs, sore hands and 5 gallon pails. Every bit of debris was sorted at least three times to assure that no human tissue was left undiscovered.
I was humbled and thrilled to receive emails from my family back home showing my street in Heritage Estates emblazoned with every home flying an American Flag. I was proud to see pictures of my community gathered on these courthouse steps holding hands while listening to “I’m Proud to be and American”. And I was proud…so proud… of my friend, colleague, business owner and life-long community supporter, David Mitchell… for taking part in that ceremony uniting this wonderful community together during such a time of uncertainty and fear. I was most proud however, to be part of a group of responders who, carry inside them an unexplainable need to go help people at the worst times of their lives in the worst possible circumstances, and in the most dangerous and life-threatening conditions. They/we don’t do it for the publicity and we don’t do it for the recognition. We do it because something is within us that says we have to. We do it just as the firefighters, police, EMS and other responders have to do it. We do it…just as all of the Fallen Heros of 9/11 did it…and that is why we offer this tribute here tonight and on this day.
If you will, please close your eyes for a moment and listen to the wind…because it talks. Listen to the silence…because it speaks… and, listen to your heart…because it knows and it feels. Now with your eyes still closed, listen to…and feel these words… “For the husband who told his wife ‘I love you’ one last time before his plane went down…we remember. For the wife who stopped in the stairs to call her husband to say ‘I love you forever’…we remember. For the mothers and fathers who kissed their kids goodbye the morning they died…we remember. For the policemen who rushed in with the firemen to help others only to die themselves…we remember. Today, tomorrow, ten years from now…we remember September 11, 2001.”
In closing, I quote Rev. Billy Graham from his remarks given at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001. “We watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the WTC, the Pentagon and into the earth in Shanksville, PA. Those two majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of prosperity and creativity. When damaged, those buildings plummeted to the ground, imploding in upon themselves. Yet, underneath the debris, was a foundation that was not destroyed. Therein lies the truth of some of the words from that great old hymn… How Firm a Foundation.…. “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed, For I am thy God, and will give thee aid. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand. Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.”
I would ask that you turn to that massive and glorious flag, the symbol of freedom and our Nation,…place your hand over your heart and as I finish with these less than familiar lyrics from our National Anthem…remember,…. always remember…this day and the blessings of family, community and freedom.
“Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto, “In God is our trust!” And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave. O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”
Thank you for your presence here tonight. May God bless you all and may God bless the United States of America.