As victims from the devastating Camp Fire in Butte County are recovered by search teams, the remains are loaded into body bags, then taken by hearse to refrigerated trucks.
Then, they are driven 90 miles south to Sacramento, where Coroner Kim Gin’s staff is facing the biggest challenge she has seen in her time in the office.
“This is not normal,” Gin said Thursday as her staff worked alongside coroner’s officials who have streamed in from other offices around the state. “I’ve been here 19 years, and we haven’t had anything even close to this.
“I think the most we had was maybe five victims, and that’s easily managed. This is what we train for all the time and prepare for, but until you get in it you don’t know how it really is.”
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With a staff of 32 people and a large morgue, Sacramento is a natural choice to help with the laborious task of identifying dozens of fire victims in various conditions, from bodies to little more than ash and fragments of bone.
Butte County had some facilities damaged in the fire, and did not have the capacity to handle the number of bodies that had been recovered as of Thursday: 56 and counting.
Gin’s office dispatched officials to Butte County starting last Friday to retrieve bodies and bring them back in coroner’s vehicles to the facility on Broadway, where pathologists, DNA experts and others will conduct the examinations to formally identify the victims before they are returned to Butte County officials to be released to family members.
“We’re the closest (city) that actually has a morgue,” Gin said. “We have plenty of room.
“We’re not using our trailers right now, but I have a semi-trailer that’s refrigerated and we have a refrigerated truck that’s being used to transport back and forth.”
Because some remains are nothing more than bones or teeth, the coroner’s office is using various methods to identify victims.
“We’re doing a bunch of things,” she said. “Some people can be identified through fingerprints, and that can be done really quickly. Some are being identified through forensic dentistry, and some will be through DNA.
“There are a lot of different types of (scientific) fields that are involved in all this, anthropologists, DNA experts, pathologists.”
Relatives of victims from as far away as Minnesota are being asked to provide DNA samples to their local law enforcement agencies to be compared to the bodies brought to Sacramento.
On Thursday morning, Sol Bechtold and his wife drove from their Pleasanton home to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office in Oroville to provide a sample he hopes will determine whether his mother perished in the fire.
Bechtold has been watching the sheriff’s evening briefings each night, anxiously waiting for news about his mother, Joanne Caddy, a 35-year resident of Magalia.
When he heard the department would begin accepting DNA samples, he knew what he had to do.
“I decided, you know what, I’m not going to wait, I need to go, I need an answer one way or another,” he said.
Bechtold hadn’t heard from a coroner or detective about whether remains were found near his mother’s house, but a Sacramento Bee team saw human remains being recovered Thursday by searchers at Caddy’s address.
Bechtold had the inside of his cheeks swabbed for both the rapid DNA testing system known as ANDE and for the state coroner office’s DNA database, which he was told would be used if the faster system couldn’t determine a match.
Officials at the makeshift testing facility in the lobby of the sheriff’s department asked “every bit of information” about his mother, “down to broken bones” and whether she had a replacement knee, he said.
He got to the lobby just before 8 a.m. “because I expected it to be standing room only.” By the time he left, there were about a dozen people giving DNA samples.
“It’s a horrible, horrible situation,” he said. “The fact that my mother could not be with me any longer is heartbreaking, but to have an answer one way or another to bring closure it would be huge.
“I’ll break down and cry later, but to have an answer, it would be huge.”
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said Wednesday night that 47 of the 56 victims recovered as of then had been tentatively identified, but that he was waiting for final results before releasing any names. Only three victims have been officially identified, although family members of various victims have come forward to confirm they have been told their relatives died in the fire.
Searchers continue to find human remains inside the fire zone, and hundreds of people remain listed as missing, but Gin said the pace at the coroner’s office has slowed somewhat since the initial crush of victims being brought in.
“We were going around the clock at first, but we’re not any longer,” she said.