There are always shoes. No matter what the event—earthquake, flood, accident, fire, or bombing—the shoes are everywhere. Sometimes, they contain a foot—or part of a foot—because the dead are often separated not just from their clothes, but from their own extremities.
There are always treasures, too. In the case of Swissair Flight 111, insurers searched the bottom of the Atlantic for literal treasure: more than ten pounds of diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones that had been lying in the cargo hold alongside an original Picasso and fifty kilos of paper money. But the treasures I look for are far more valuable. They are the personal treasures: wedding rings, heirloom watches, and eyeglasses; passports and pictures; journals, books, toys, and favorite clothes that offer tangible proof people exist—or at least existed once—and were loved. They are the reminders of lives lived, the last glimpses of the people we knew, how they lived and how they died.
Most important, there are always those left behind. There are the spouses, the parents, the children, and the friends and other relatives who wait at home or come to the airport, expecting to see their loved one get off a flight. Instead they see a message on the arrivals board, asking them to contact an agent, or they get a text from a friend who sees something on the news. Then, if they are lucky enough to live in a country that has a response system in place, they find themselves shuttled to a somber hotel conference room, where they meet me, their guide to a new life they never expected to happen. If no such system exists, they then have to scramble to piece together what happened to their loved ones themselves, sometimes sifting through wreckage or mass graves or erecting impromptu memorials in the ruined homes or offices.
There are also the friends and coworkers who white-knuckle through every commercial flight they’re forced to take for the rest of their lives, especially after the horror of the Boeing 737 Max Jet crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, which killed 346 people. Like so many other man-made disasters, these could have been avoided, except for the fact that we are all people and people make mistakes and will always continue to do so. The story of the loss of the 737 Max and the response by Boeing may seem shocking to us, but it is not the first time something like that has happened and unlikely it will be the last.
The aftershocks of tragedy reverberate for decades: grief, trauma, mental illness, lawsuits, bad press, lost revenue. Most of my life has been spent responding to those events. As the head of the world’s leading disaster management company—on retainer with many of the world’s airlines, national governments, maritime, rail companies, and others—I handle the dead, often literally.
My real purpose, though, is to help the living. I can’t offer them closure, but I do offer them a way to manage their recovery and create the best chance for them to transition from what was normal to what will be, for them, the new normal.
From 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to the 2010 Haitian earthquake and the 2004 South Asian tsunami, I’ve led efforts to recover and repatriate human remains, return possessions to families, and help governments and people go forward. If journalists write the first rough draft of history, I’m the one adding the footnotes, giving the dead their due, buried at the bottom of the page. In the lobby of my Houston offices hangs a Stars and Stripes flag; a flag that once flew over the New York City Medical Examiners Memorial Park, an area holding refrigerated trucks with human remains recovered from the World Trade Center. It is similar to the flag that hangs in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters in New York, which we recovered from the bombed-out UN offices in Baghdad, from where we returned those lost to their families. Flags, like bodies, are powerful symbols.
There are great lessons to be learned and shared from these events. What I’ve learned in life is that no one—businesses, governments, the media, even first responders or families—is ever quite prepared enough for these crises or disasters. Everyone will react differently, and I don’t mean while the event is occurring, but after the danger has passed. Some will panic; others will shut down and pretend it did not happen. Others will want to watch, but not directly: they will peek between their fingers, horrified but unable to look away, knowing that nothing will ever be the same. I have never been one to turn away. When I was fourteen, I was in a car accident. My mom was driving. She was mad because my sister and I had missed the bus to school and she had called in sick to work, so she wasn’t thrilled about taking us to school in a small town where people would see her. Distracted and then flustered, she hit the gas instead of the brakes, slamming into an old steel streetlight. It didn’t move. As the car wrapped around the pole, my legs were pinned underneath the dashboard. That wasn’t so bad. My head and face shattering the windshield was the bad part. The impact cut my forehead to ribbons and left my face and scalp full of small pieces of glass, some of which still now work their way out or have to be removed by doctors. When the firemen finally cut through the car to get me out and I could somewhat stand to get onto the stretcher, I’ll always remember that many of the bystanders turned away, lowered their heads, or covered their eyes. Others just stared. The shock of how I looked was not something they were prepared for. They weren’t involved, so they were lucky they could turn away.
Survivors—living people who have been directly affected by mass fatalities—can’t turn away. Some try, but eventually they will have to deal with the consequences. For a period of time—for some it will be longer than others—these people will experience a life outside the ordinary. How the system responds to care for them will have a huge impact on how long or how hard that that period is. Hopefully they will have their world back. It will be different, but it will be theirs.
No matter where I am in the world, when I tell people what I do, it becomes a long conversation, one I repeat over and over. The fascination never goes away. It is a rare glimpse beyond the headlines and behind the yellow tape and barricades set up to isolate and protect the scene—in some ways, those barricades are meant to protect the living, because when people see what is behind them, their world changes forever. But what goes on behind those barricades, when done right, can be a masterpiece of coordination, exhaustive work, and finding a path through the worst that the world can throw at us.
It takes leadership to manage the unmanageable, to bring order to chaos. People in charge are not always rational when under huge pressure or wrestling with unbearable grief. They make bad decisions with far-reaching ramifications or make promises that can’t be fulfilled. Sometimes, I have to say “no” to a bad decision. I was once asked to saw the body of a deceased Marine in half because his trapped body was partially visible in his dress uniform in the Oklahoma City bombing. I said “no” because it was a total lack of respect for the Marine and the life he gave.
Sometimes, I’ve had to say “yes” to requests that were difficult but necessary. I’ve had to negotiate my way through checkpoints manned by militiamen in war-torn countries; to tell family members that the DNA test we used to identify their late father’s remains had, in fact, revealed that he was never actually their father in the first place. Before this, as a young Army officer in the last days of the Cold War, I was responsible to launch, when ordered, Pershing II Nuclear Missiles. Missiles that could have destroyed thousands of lives.
One thing I take away from the mayhem I have seen is an understanding that as people, we focus on the things we can’t control while overlooking the many things we can. There are a lot of things we don’t really control, and we forget that. We all get hints of this from time to time. Some are mere annoyances— canceled flights, rained-out events. Others shock us, with a threat of loss of life or actual loss of life, such as: aircraft accidents, terrorist attacks, school shootings, or natural disasters, like floods and storms that devastate farms and businesses. None of them new; we are just more aware of them. We will all live and we will all die. The key is to live well. Life should be about living, not dying.
I have dealt with sudden, unexpected, and often violent death most of my adult life on a scale few can fathom. Think about any major disaster over the past thirty years, and chances are I was there and personally involved. And not just a walk-through for a day, but for many days, months, or even years.
This book is about how to avoid being overwhelmed, to see the good in situations, how to solve problems, and lead people from what their life was to what it will be.
For most people life is a routine, like traveling down a highway every day. Then all of a sudden that highway collapses in front of them and now, where once there was roadway, there is a huge, bottomless chasm. My job is to have a plan, the tools, and resources to build a bridge across that chasm. The survivors, the people we help, the families and friends of the deceased, their job is to cross that bridge and continue on with life. How well we build that bridge will for many determine how many cross that bridge. No matter how well we do, some will not. Building that bridge and the journey across is what this book is about.
It is also about the toll it takes on the bridge builder. A former colleague of mine, a British forensics expert, cannot hear the sound of ice cubes being dropped into a glass without instantly recalling the image of ice blocks being offloaded from trucks to refrigerate the thousands of bodies recovered in Thailand’s trashed coastal resorts after the South Asian tsunami of 2004. Because I lead people, I am responsible for them. Therefore, a major part of my job is to make sure they know when they are hitting their limits, not to push people beyond what they can take, to teach them to recognize their own limits and to know themselves. After each event we are all a little bit different. How different is hard to tell and varies greatly from person to person. But always different.
That goes for me too, but who watches out for me and what will happen to me? To be honest, I don’t really know. No one forced me into this job, I like what I do, and I am good at it. I think I have a pretty good outlook on life: chances are if you ever met me after hearing what I do, I probably wouldn’t fit your expectations. But I am not normal; and someday I will stop and then I hope to find an ordinary world, one that must exist even for me. I’ve always been a fan of the ’80s band Duran Duran, and often think of their song “Ordinary World” when I look back on the life I’ve lived.
There’s an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
This is a lot for a book, but then again, I have seen a lot.
Copyright © 2021 by Robert A. Jensen.