Unearthed Graves, Sorrows

 

By Sue Anne Pressley and Hamil R. Harris

Washington Post Staff Writers

Saturday, October 30, 1999; Page A01

 

PRINCEVILLE, N.C., Oct. 29 Dorothy Ricks and her young son, David, were laid to rest again today, six weeks after the flood waters here disturbed their graves in the cemetery of this historic black town.

 

As workers smoothed the earth with rakes and shovels, John W. Ricks Jr. bowed his head and recalled the March 1978 car accident in Hanau, Germany, that destroyed his family--and the recent horror of discovering that the caskets of two of them had escaped their graves. The nearby graves of John III, who was 5 when he died, and "Baby" Monica, who was 16 months old, somehow remained intact as the Tar River flowed over the cemetery last month.

 

"I never can forget. To me, it seems like yesterday instead of 21 years ago," said Ricks, a postal worker from Dale City, Va., who was serving with the U.S. Army in Germany at the time of the accident.

 

In the midst of all the desolation left by Hurricane Floyd in this vast expanse of eastern North Carolina, few could bear to consider one of the more dreadful occurrences: 224 caskets were dislodged from their graves and sent floating along the watery streets, slamming into trees and coming to a stop beside and on top of ruined homes. Although some of the caskets had been buried in small country cemeteries far afield, the majority came from this modest graveyard in what is recognized as the oldest town in America chartered by blacks.

 

The task of identifying the remains, placing them in new government-provided caskets and reburying them fell--as it often does during national tragedies--to the U.S. Public Health Service's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, better known as DMORT.

 

In times of flooding, plane crashes, train wrecks and other catastrophes, the group of morticians, anthropologists, pathologists, X-ray technicians and fingerprint experts gather from around the country to take care of the dead. With respect and great delicacy, they go into a world most people prefer not to think about.

 

"It is a way to take a unique scientific skill and use it to help people out in their time of need," said forensic anthropologist Paul Sledzik, who works at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in the District and serves as a DMORT team leader. "In our culture, people need a body to grieve over. The DMORT teams are there to give people back their loved ones."

 

The U.S. Public Health Service created the National Disaster Medical System, of which DMORT is a part, in 1992, to respond to incidents where dealing with death overwhelms state and local officials. Among other jobs, DMORT set up a temporary morgue in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the federal building there.

 

In this case, the team, which involved as many as 158 workers who rotated in and out, set up shop in a warehouse in nearby Tarboro.

 

The group's first step was to gauge the magnitude of its task. Team members set out in a flotilla of seven boats in mid-September through the murky lake that had replaced the streets of Princeville.

 

"The caskets were in people's yards; some were as far as eight blocks away, but they were all intact. None of the bodies were outside the coffins this time," said Sledzik, who has not always been so lucky.

 

When the waters finally receded, the community cemetery was filled with gaping holes left by the wayward coffins. But the area where slaves were buried was undisturbed, perhaps because they had been placed in wooden caskets that had disintegrated long ago.

 

At the temporary morgue, each retrieved coffin was opened, and the deceased was examined and photographed. Relatives were urged to come by a Family Center set up at a nearby Holiday Inn to provide information about their loved ones. But sometimes the process slowed, as many Princeville residents were overwhelmed by more urgent problems, such as their sudden homelessness after the flood.

 

"It was one of those situations where a lot of them lost everything," said Dean Snow, a former Ray County, Mo., coroner who is DMORT's deputy national commander. "They had to worry more about getting their lives together than worrying about the dead."

 

There also were fears that they might have to view the remains, but that was never the case, said Buddy Bell, a mortician and retired Maryland state police officer who is the team commander. Instead, the investigators relied on details they gleaned from the bodies and their attire, cross-matching them by computer with information supplied by the families.

 

Some of the corpses, for example, were dressed in military uniforms or ministers' robes. A few of the women were interred in pink coffins with pink satin linings; others wore long gloves and distinctive jewelry. Appendectomy scars were compared, degrees of baldness and varieties of facial hair were discussed, dental records were utilized. In several cases, heart pacemakers were traced by their manufacturers. An open Bible was found in one casket, an obituary from The Washington Post in another.

 

Although in many instances investigators had to sleuth to identify the remains, they already knew the names of some of the dead because it was common in Princeville to engrave them on top of the vaults instead of buying costly tombstones. But they still needed confirmation from the families, Bell said.

 

By today, 171 identifications had been confirmed, representing more than 75 percent of the cases, and the task of reburying the caskets began. There is no charge to the families for any of the services.

 

If relatives of the 53 others have not come forward by next Wednesday, those remains will be reinterred at a cemetery owned by Edgecombe County. "You hate to bury unknowns," said Snow, "but sometimes you have no choice."

 

At the Princeville community cemetery this morning, under a crisp blue sky, John W. Ricks Jr. and three carloads of relatives came to say goodbye again.

 

First, the coffin of Dorothy, who was 27 when she died, was lowered into the ground, then the coffin of David, who was 9.

 

"It's been pretty rocky," Ricks said. "I'm not going to say I'm proud of what I did [after the deaths]--I was married again and divorced, and at one time after all this, I used to drink a lot. I asked my mother, is it wrong to still be in love with somebody who's been dead 21 years? We were happily married."

 

A worker using a front-end loader finished covering the fresh graves. Dorothy Ricks's great-aunt, Helen Taylor of Tarboro, led the others in reciting the 23rd Psalm. As bystanders began to cry, the family sang "Amazing Grace," their voices full of sorrow.

 

Then, John's mother, Esther Byrd, placed a red rose on one of the graves, and Dorothy's mother, Dorothy Whitehead, lay a red rose on the other. The flowers had been paid for, out of their own pockets, by four members of the DMORT team. They had bought one for each of the 17 people who would be reburied today.

 

1999 The Washington Post Company