Share this article

print logo

Identifying victims of Clarence crash to take weeks

The difficult task of identifying the 50 victims of Continental Flight 3407 progressed Sunday as specialists combed through body fragments and personal belongings after the crash in Clarence Center.

Assuming the clear weather continues, officials said they expect to remove the remains by the end of the week from the crash site on Long Street.

But identifying all the dead could take many more weeks of forensic work in the morgue.

"Our primary mission now is re-uniting the remains with their families. But it's like an archaeological dig, a slow and methodical process," saidDr. Anthony Billittier IV, Erie County health commissioner.

Thursday night's crash of the commuter airplane also leaves many un-answered questions for residents touched by the tragedy.

So, as officials investigated the cause and searched for bodies, they also spent part of Sunday trying to provide answers during a briefing in Clarence High School.

"It's an opportunity to take care of things that might be falling through the cracks," Clarence Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski said.

One of the key messages: No environmental or medical hazards have been found around the crash site, where 12 properties were evacuated after the turboprop Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 went down atop one of the houses.

Such disasters bring together a host of specialists to give names to the victims by matching dental records, fingerprinting, studying bones and conducting DNA tests to determine unique genetic qualities.

Teeth are one of the basic pieces of evidence because they are the most likely body part to survive an intense fire.

In this case, Billittier said his colleagues "hit the ground running" because Dr. James J. Woytash, the county medical examiner, is a dentist, as well as a pathologist, and is helped by Dr. Raymond Miller of Lancaster, a consulting forensic dentist.

Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., sent a forensic anthropologist accompanied by a team of graduate students to help examine human skeletal remains. Bones can be used to estimate age, race and sex. They also can show identifying injuries from the past, such as fractures.

A federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, known as DMORT, arrived with 41 people and equipment to set up mobile morgues and to help with search and recovery.

Team members also will assist with an emotionally tough but essential part of the investigation -- talking to family members about obtaining dental and medical records, and asking about distinguishing features, such as scars, tattoos, jewelry and clothing.

As a last resort, officials will turn to DNA testing of tissue to identify an individual, a process that has begun in this case. The analyses are being done by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

"We're making significant progress, but it will take weeks of work in the morgue and weeks also for the DNA results," Billittier said.

He declined to say how many individuals had been identified, explaining that he and his colleagues preferred to consult first with victims' family members.

"Out of respect for the families, we will not release numbers," Billittier said.

County officials established a Health Operations Center at the Erie County Medical Center campus on Grider Street to coordinate efforts. The morgue, where bodies are being taken, also is located on the medical center campus.

As they make their way through the body parts, officials must document everything they come across, requiring a small army of radiologists, technicians, coroners, computer personnel, and security and support staff.

"The challenge is the enormity and complexity of the task," said Scott Zimmerman, county laboratory director.

While the experts continued to comb the site, the minds of area residents and others remained elsewhere.

By midafternoon Sunday, more than two dozen bouquets of flowers and other items had been placed outside Clarence Center United Methodist Church.

At the public briefing, dozens of Clarence residents asked questions and received a wide-ranging status report from town, county and state officials.

Residents of Long Street, for instance, wanted to know about the return of utilities and other services.

"What do we do about mail, garbage pickup -- the normal aspects of life?" asked Kathy Hoffman.

David Harrington, who made the initial call to 911 about the crash, expressed concern about heat in the homes and water pipes, especially if temperatures decline significantly before evacuees are allowed to return.

"I just want to make sure we're not forgotten," he said.

The incident has been particularly stressful for Harrington. He didn't know the exact address of the home destroyed by the airplane, so he told the 911 operator to get emergency personnel to his house. He then watched in dismay throughout the night as television news shows displayed his address as the site of the crash.

"People kept calling me thinking I was dead," he said.

David Bissonette, Clarence's coordinator of emergency services, said utilities had been restored at all but two homes. Once investigators complete their work, the goal calls for allowing most residents back in their homes by the end of the week. But a house adjacent to the home destroyed in the crash also had significant damage and will require additional work, he said.

Among other issues discussed:

* Cleanup of debris and any soil found to be contaminated is expected to begin immediately after recovery of human remains, probably Friday or Saturday, and will take about a week to complete. But full restoration of the properties, such as reseeding lawns, will wait until spring, said Daniel King, regional spill engineer for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

* Curiosity-seekers have been warned. Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and Clarence Town Attorney Steven B. Bengart, responding to several incidents since the crash, said authorities will arrest and prosecute anyone found trespassing at the crash site. A portion of Goodrich Road had to be closed for several hours Sunday, because people were stopping, getting out of their vehicles and walking through residents' yards to get a view of the crash site.

"It was a crush of people," State Police Capt. Steven A. Nigrelli said Sunday. "We will shut the road down again, if we see what we did today."

* A telephone hotline -- 211 -- for residents to call with questions will operate 24 hours a day as the cleanup and investigation continue. Officials stressed that residents should call that number, not 911, for non-emergency questions. The hotline received about 150 calls Sunday. Additional information is available at the Clarence Web site,

* A number of efforts have begun to aid families and help children cope with the tragedy.

In addition to the town, information is available from the American Red Cross (,Clarence Central School District( and Clarence Chamber of Commerce.

* Continental Airlines and its insurance carrier have agreed to pay town expenses associated with the crash, Bengart said.

* The state has granted Clarence residents a one-week extension -- to Feb. 24 -- for paying their property taxes.

News Staff Reporter Aaron Besecker contributed to this report.

e-mail: and

There are no comments - be the first to comment