Heart-breaking task

Originally published Sept. 25, 1972

“There are going to be empty desks in school tomorrow . . .

“What can you say about something like this? When you’ve seen 12 kids . . .

“In the 15 years I’ve been around, this has been the most we’ve ever had. I don’t know of a disaster here that would equal this.”

That was Sacramento County Coroner Georg L. Nielsen last night as he stood in the parking lot beneath his office where 22 bodies – 12 of them children – lay on the blood-stained white-topped carts or wire-frame stretchers.

“It grabs you. Somewhere tonight somebody’s looking for a child. I’ve always dreaded something like this was going to happen.”

“The adults we can always identify with fingerprints. But the kids, there’s no other way – they’ll have to go down the line and look at them.”

Not Identified

Most of yesterday afternoon’s victims at this point were still numbers. Big brown paper grocery sacks, each numbered alongside a body, held a scrap of clothes, a shoe, or whatever, that might identify it.

A deputy climbed to the third rung of a six-foot stepladder to take a picture of the child, No. 3 at this point.

He wore tennis shoes, with the same fast-running tread my boy prizes. His dark green pants were about a 6 slim, I guessed, like my son’s. A yellow blanket was crumbled at his left side.

Nearby – too close – was victim No. 7, looking more like a broken and discarded doll than someone’s daughter. The one foot visible under the burgundy-colored wool blanket was bare but a white sandal was nearby.

The deputy’s flashbulbs flared at intervals, brightening the concrete of the parking area where the dead were assembled. A canvas-covered chain link fence shielded them from outside view while the professionals at this job went about their business.

“Coffee? That sounds like a helluva idea,” said another deputy. His voice was studiedly calm – but his hand trembled out of control as he raised the cup to his lips.

Body by body the deputies went through the routine: photographs, a search for identification and then fingerprinting.

Wait For Parents

“When we come down to the children, we’re coming to a dead end,” said Nielsen. “They don’t carry identification. Now we wait for them (the parents) to see us.”

Upstairs Ray Otto, Protestant chaplain from the Sacramento Medical Center, and the Rev. Doug Huneke of Fremont Presbyterian waited for parents to begin coming in.

They did. A young woman in bedroom slippers. A young father with a look on his face that betrayed his fear that his two children were in the city morgue.

Nielsen said last night he has no plans to convene an inquest.

“We’ll be working with the FAA, and we have access to all the information now without an inquest,” he said. “We will have several pathologists tonight doing post-mortems. By noon hopefully we’ll have them all X-rayed.

“The cause of death we won’t know til later when we autopsy them. There are some who have obvious signs of burning, but we don’t know that’s the cause of death. I wouldn’t want to speculate about what happened.

“I don’t know what the hell happened to that airplane . . .”