Towson professor to leave for Haiti to identify U.S. remains

'It's a job that has to be done,' says forensic anthropologist Kollmann

  • Dana Kollmann's experience investigating Baltimore County crime scenes and mass graves in the former Yugoslavia will help her during the job in Haiti.
Dana Kollmann's experience investigating Baltimore… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
February 24, 2010|By Kelly Brewington | kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

Dana Kollmann examines ancient skulls on the weekends, teaches anthropology during the week, and her four young children can sum up their mother's passion in three words: "Mama studies bones." Today, the Towson University professor leaves for Haiti for the somber task of identifying the remains of at least 100 Americans believed to have perished in last month's devastating earthquake.

As a member of the federal government's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, known as DMORTs, she's one of a group of 30 professionals, including coroners and forensic dentists, who process, identify and prepare the remains of disaster victims for burial.

It's gruesome, arduous work. But for Kollmann, a 41-year-old forensic anthropologist from Catonsville, it is an essential mission meant to bring respect and dignity to those who lost their lives in the catastrophe and a sense of closure to their families.

"It's a job that has to be done, and I don't believe everyone can do it," she said. "I feel that those of us who have the skill set to do it, it's our duty. It's our duty to Haiti; it's our duty to mankind. We have to get these people identified and get them back to their families."

While this is Kollmann's first deployment with DMORT, her expertise spans two decades, including stints as a crime scene investigator in Baltimore County, a researcher at the Smithsonian and a grave excavator in the war-torn former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

In the Balkans, she worked in small villages blanketed in rubble, littered with land mines and, on a few occasions, threatened by sniper fire.

"Just to walk 200 yards took a string of de-miners to clear the area," she said. "The graves were booby-trapped. It was disastrous in a different sense. In Haiti, as horrible as the circumstances are, we will be insulated."

Kollmann's two-week deployment will be spent mostly in a makeshift mortuary run on a generator at the Port-au-Prince airport. Wearing a biohazard suit and face shield, she'll examine remains unearthed from the ruins. In most cases, just by looking, she'll be able to tell if a bone is male or female, young or old. Kollmann will look for tell-tale signs in the skull and the hips to determine sex, evidence of growing bones to identify children and weakened ones to distinguish the old.

She might also use X-rays to help make out intricacies she can't see on her own. And when it comes to making a positive identification, she will tap into a database of characteristics of those presumed dead. The database, compiled by DMORT teams in Miami who have been working with families of the missing, catalogs a list of scars, tattoos, medical and dental records, even digital X-rays, to help teams on the ground identify their relatives.

Kollmann's group will be able to access the database from the portable morgue. From there, they can also run fingerprints through an FBI database, take DNA samples and send what they have found to a lab in the U.S.

At the end of their grueling days, Kollmann and her teammates will sleep on mosquito-netted cots in tents beside the morgue.

The technical challenges are many; even greater are the emotional demands, said Kevin Yeskey, director of the office of preparedness and emergency response for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees DMORTs.

"It's a very emotional event," he said. "You are identifying the remains of American citizens. There's that element of decomposition and disfigurement, which is something they are used to in their professional background. But nevertheless, it's a challenge."

Kollmann thinks coping with the emotional toll can't be taught. You're either able to do it or not.

"You have to be able to turn the emotional switch off," she said. "I don't think there's a word to tell you how to do that. Whether it's a crime scene, or a mass grave or a catastrophe like Haiti, the pace is so quick. It's the pace that gets you through it."

But even her resolve was tested while investigating devastating crime scenes in Baltimore County.

"It's difficult, it's doable, until the families would show up," she said. "I would be on a murder scene and just be so engrossed in my job, but as soon as I would hear the wails of the family members, that was more than I could take."

DMORT teams have existed since the 1990s and have responded to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. But this is their first international deployment, said Yeskey.

In the days immediately after the Haitian earthquake, State Department officials estimated that about 46,000 Americans were in the country at the time of the quake. Last week, the State Department estimated 2,200 Americans are missing and 103 are presumed dead. Recovery teams, which work with other federal agencies, have been given the names of those believed to have died. They are also focusing on hotels Americans were known to frequent and large gathering spots such as markets, Yeskey said.

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