Fatal Voyage 1
I STARED AT THE WOMAN FLYING THROUGH THE TREES. Her head was forward, chin raised, arms flung backward like the tiny chrome goddess on the hood of a Rolls-Royce. But the tree lady was naked, and her body ended at the waist. Blood-coated leaves and branches imprisoned her lifeless torso.
Lowering my eyes, I looked around. Except for the narrow gravel road on which I was parked, there was nothing but dense forest. The trees were mostly pine, the few hardwoods like wreaths marking the death of summer, their foliage every shade of red, orange, and yellow.
Though it was hot in Charlotte, at this elevation the early October weather was pleasant. But it would soon grow cool. I took a windbreaker from the backseat, stood still, and listened.
Birdsong. Wind. The scurrying of a small animal. Then, in the distance, one man calling to another. A muffled response.
Tying the jacket around my waist, I locked the car and set off toward the voices, my feet swishing through dead leaves and pine needles.
Ten yards into the woods I passed a seated figure leaning against a mossy stone, knees flexed to his chest, laptop computer at his side. He was missing both arms, and a small china pitcher protruded from his left temple.
On the computer lay a face, teeth laced with orthodontic wiring, one brow pierced by a delicate gold ring. The eyes were open, the pupils dilated, giving the face an expression of alarm. I felt a tremor beneath my tongue, and quickly moved on.
Within yards I saw a leg, the foot still bound in its hiking boot. The limb had been torn off at the hip, and I wondered if it belonged to the Rolls-Royce torso.
Beyond the leg, two men rested side by side, seat belts fastened, necks mushrooming into red blossoms. One man sat with legs crossed, as if reading a magazine.
I picked my way deeper into the forest, now and then hearing disconnected shouts, carried to me at the wind’s whim. Brushing back branches and climbing over rocks and fallen logs, I continued on.
Luggage and pieces of metal lay among the trees. Most suitcases had burst, spewing their contents in random patterns. Clothing, curling irons, and electric shavers were jumbled with containers of hand lotion, shampoo, aftershave, and perfume. One small carry-on had disgorged hundreds of pilfered hotel toiletries. The smell of drugstore products and airplane fuel mingled with the scent of pine and mountain air. And from far off, a hint of smoke.
I was moving through a steep-walled gully whose thick canopy allowed only mottled sunlight to reach the ground. It was cool in the shadows, but sweat dampened my hairline and glued my clothing to my skin. I caught my foot on a backpack and went hurtling forward, tearing my sleeve on a jagged bough truncated by falling debris.
I lay a moment, hands trembling, breath coming in ragged gulps. Though I’d trained myself to hide emotion, I could feel despair rising in me. So much death. Dear God, how many would there be?
Closing my eyes, I centered myself mentally, then pushed to my feet.
Aeons later, I stepped over a rotting log, circled a stand of rhododendron, and, seeming no closer to the distant voices, stopped to get my bearings. The muted wail of a siren told me the rescue operation was gathering somewhere over a ridge to the east.
Way to get directions, Brennan.
But there hadn’t been time to ask questions. First responders to airline crashes or other disasters are usually well intentioned, but woefully ill-prepared to deal with mass fatalities. I’d been on my way from Charlotte to Knoxville, nearing the state line, when I’d been asked to get to the scene as quickly as possible. Doubling back on I-40, I’d cut south toward Waynesville, then west through Bryson City, a North Carolina hamlet approximately 175 miles west of Charlotte, 50 miles east of Tennessee, and 50 miles north of Georgia. I’d followed county blacktop to the point where state maintenance ended, then proceeded on gravel to a Forest Service road that snaked up the mountain.
Though the instructions I’d been given had been accurate, I suspected there was a better route, perhaps a small logging trail that allowed a closer approach to the adjacent valley. I debated returning to the car, decided to press on. Perhaps those already at the site had trekked overland, as I was doing. The Forest Service road had looked like it was going nowhere beyond where I’d left the car.
After an exhausting uphill scramble, I grabbed the trunk of a Douglas fir, planted one foot, and heaved myself onto a ridge. Straightening, I stared into the button eyes of
Raggedy Ann. The doll was dangling upside down, her dress entangled in the fir’s lower branches.
An image of my daughter’s Raggedy flashed to mind, and I reached out.
I lowered my arm, knowing that every item must be mapped and recorded before removal. Only then could someone claim the sad memento.
From my position on the ridge I had a clear view of what was probably the main crash site. I could see an engine, half buried in dirt and debris, and what looked like pieces of wing flap. A portion of fuselage lay with the bottom peeled back, like a diagram in an instructional manual for model planes. Through the windows I could see seats, some occupied, most empty.
Wreckage and body parts covered the landscape like refuse discarded at a dump. From where I stood, the skin-covered body portions looked starkly pale against the backdrop of forest floor, viscera, and airplane parts. Articles dangled from trees or lay snarled in the leaves and branches. Fabric. Wiring. Sheet metal. Insulation. Molded plastic.
The locals had arrived and were securing the site and checking for survivors. Figures searched among the trees, others stretched tape around the perimeter of the debris field. They wore yellow jackets with Swain County Sheriff’s Department printed on the back. Still others just wandered or stood in clumps, smoking, talking, or staring aimlessly.
Way off through the trees I noticed the flashing of red, blue, and yellow lights, marking the location of the access route I’d failed to find. In my mind I saw the police cruisers, fire engines, rescue trucks, ambulances, and vehicles of citizen volunteers that would clog that road by tomorrow morning.
The wind shifted and the smell of smoke grew stronger. I turned and saw a thin, black plume curling upward just beyond the next ridge. My stomach tightened, for I was close enough now to detect another odor mingling with the sharp, acrid scent.
Being a forensic anthropologist, it is my job to investigate violent death. I have examined hundreds of fire victims for coroners and medical examiners, and know the smell of charred flesh. One gorge over, people were burning.
I swallowed hard and refocused on the rescue operation. Some who had been inactive were now moving across the site. I watched a sheriff’s deputy bend and inspect debris at his feet. He straightened, and an object flashed in his left hand. Another deputy had begun stacking debris.
I started picking my way downward, clinging to underbrush and zigzagging between trees and boulders to control my balance. The gradient was steep, and a stumble could turn into a headlong plunge.
Ten yards from the bottom I stepped on a sheet of metal that slid and sent me into the air like a snowboarder on a major wipeout. I landed hard and began to half roll, half slide down the slope, bringing with me an avalanche of pebbles, branches, leaves, and pinecones.
To stop my fall, I grabbed for a handhold, skinning my palms and tearing my nails before my left hand struck something solid and my fingers closed around it. My wrist jerked painfully as it took the weight of my body, breaking my downward momentum.
I hung there a moment, then rolled onto my side, pulled with both hands, and scooched myself to a sitting position. Never easing my grasp, I looked up.
The object I clutched was a long metal bar, angling skyward from a rock at my hip to a truncated tree a yard
upslope. I planted my feet, tested for traction, and worked my way to a standing position. Wiping bleeding hands on my pants, I retied my jacket and continued downward to level ground.
At the bottom, I quickened my pace. Though my terra felt far from firma, at least gravity was now on my side. At the cordoned-off area, I lifted the tape and ducked under.
“Whoa, lady. Not so fast.”
I stopped and turned. The man who had spoken wore a Swain County Sheriff’s Department jacket.
“I’m with DMORT.”
“What the hell is DMORT?” Gruff.
“Is the sheriff on site?”
“Who’s asking?” The deputy’s face was rigid, his mouth compressed into a hard, tight line. An orange hunting cap rested low over his eyes.
“Dr. Temperance Brennan.”
“We ain’t gonna need no doctor here.”
“I’ll be identifying the victims.”
In mass disasters, each government agency has specific responsibilities. The Office of Emergency Preparedness, OEP, manages and directs the National Disaster Medical System, NDMS, which provides medical response and victim identification and mortuary services in the event of a mass fatality incident.
To meet its mission, NDMS created the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, DMORT, and Disaster Medical Assistance Team, DMAT, systems. In officially declared disasters, DMAT looks after the needs of the living, while DMORT deals with the dead.
I dug out and extended my NDMS identification.
The deputy studied the card, then tipped his head in the direction of the fuselage.
“Sheriff’s with the fire chiefs.” His voice cracked and he wiped a hand across his mouth. Then he dropped his eyes and walked away, embarrassed to have shown emotion.
I was not surprised at the deputy’s demeanor. The toughest and most capable of cops and rescue workers, no matter how extensive their training or experience, are never psychologically prepared for their first major.
Majors. That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board dubbed these crashes. I wasn’t sure what was required to qualify as a major, but I’d worked several and knew one thing with certainty: Each was a horror. I was never prepared, either, and shared his anguish. I’d just learned not to show it.
Threading toward the fuselage, I passed a deputy covering a body.
“Take that off,” I ordered.
“Don’t blanket them.”
I showed my ID again.
“But they’re lying in the open.” His voice sounded flat, like a computer recording.
“Everything must remain in place.”
“We’ve got to do something. It’s getting dark. Bears are gonna scent on these”—he stumbled for a word—“people.”
I’d seen what Ursus could do to a corpse and sympathized with the man’s concerns. Nevertheless, I had to stop him.
“Everything must be photographed and recorded before it can be touched.”
He bunched the blanket with both hands, his face pinched with pain. I knew exactly what he was feeling. The need to do something, the uncertainty as to what. The
sense of helplessness in the midst of overwhelming tragedy.
“Please spread the word that everything has to stay put. Then search for survivors.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” His eyes swept the scene around us. “No one could survive this.”
“If anyone is alive they’ve got more to fear from bears than these folks do.” I indicated the body at his feet.
“And wolves,” he added in a hollow voice.
“What’s the sheriff’s name?”
He glanced toward a group near the fuselage.
“Tall one in the green jacket.”
I left him and hurried toward Crowe.
The sheriff was examining a map with a half dozen volunteer firefighters whose gear suggested they’d come from several jurisdictions. Even with head bent, Crowe was the tallest in the group. Under the jacket his shoulders looked broad and hard, suggesting regular workouts. I hoped I would not find myself at cross purposes with Sheriff Mountain Macho.
When I drew close the firemen stopped listening and looked in my direction.
Crowe turned, and I realized that macho would not be an issue.
Her cheeks were high and broad, her skin cinnamon. The hair escaping her flat-brimmed hat was frizzy and carrot red. But what held my attention were her eyes. The irises were the color of glass in old Coke bottles. Highlighted by orange lashes and brows, and set against the tawny skin, the pale green was extraordinary. I guessed her age at around forty.
“And you are?” The voice was deep and gravelly, and suggested its owner wanted no nonsense.
“Dr. Temperance Brennan.”
“And you have reason to be at this site?”
“I’m with DMORT.”
Again the ID. She studied the card and handed it back.
“I heard a crash bulletin while driving from Charlotte to Knoxville. When I phoned Earl Bliss, who’s leader of the Region Four team, he asked me to divert over, see if you need anything.”
A bit more diplomatic than Earl’s actual comments.
For a moment the woman did not reply. Then she turned back to the firefighters, spoke a few words, and the men dispersed. Closing the gap between us, she held out her hand. The grip could injure.
“Please call me Tempe.”
She spread her feet, crossed her arms, and regarded me with the Coke-bottle eyes.
“I don’t believe any of these poor souls will be needing medical attention.”
“I’m a forensic anthropologist, not a medical doctor. You’ve searched for survivors?”
She nodded with a single upward jerk of her head, the type of gesture I’d seen in India. “I thought something like this would be the ME’s baby.”
“It’s everybody’s baby. Is the NTSB here yet?” I knew the National Transportation Safety Board never took long to arrive.
“They’re coming. I’ve heard from every agency on the planet. NTSB, FBI, ATF, Red Cross, FAA, Forest Service, TVA, Department of the Interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pope himself came riding over Wolf Knob there.”
“Interior and TVA?”
“The feds own most of this county; about eighty-five percent as national forest, five percent as reservation.” She extended a hand at shoulder level, moved it in a clockwise circle. “We’re on what’s called Big Laurel. Bryson City’s off to the northwest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s beyond that. The Cherokee Indian Reservation lies to the north, the Nantahala Game Land and National Forest to the south.”
I swallowed to relieve the pressure inside my ears.
“What’s the elevation here?”
“We’re at forty-two hundred feet.”
“I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, Sheriff, but there are a few folks you might want to keep ou—”
“The insurance man and the snake-bellied lawyer. Lucy Crowe may live on a mountain, but she’s been off it once or twice.”
I didn’t doubt that. I was also certain that no one gave lip to Lucy Crowe.
“Probably good to keep the press out, too.”
“You’re right about the ME, Sheriff. He’ll be here. But the North Carolina emergency plan calls for DMORT involvement for a major.”
I heard a muffled boom, followed by shouted orders. Crowe removed her hat and ran the back of her sleeve across her forehead.
“How many fires are still burning?”
“Four. We’re getting them out, but it’s dicey. The mountain’s mighty dry this time of year.” She tapped the hat against a thigh as muscular as her shoulders.
“I’m sure your crews are doing their best. They’ve secured the area and they’re dealing with the fires. If there are no survivors, there’s nothing else to be done.”
“They’re not really trained for this kind of thing.”
Over Crowe’s shoulder an old man in a Cherokee Volunteer PD jacket poked through a pile of debris. I decided on tact.
“I’m sure you’ve told your people that crash scenes must be treated like crime scenes. Nothing should be disturbed.”
She gave her peculiar down-up nod.
“They’re probably feeling frustrated, wanting to be useful but unsure what to do. A reminder never hurts.”
I indicated the poker.
Crowe swore softly, then crossed to the volunteer, her strides powerful as an Olympic runner’s. The man moved off, and in a moment the sheriff was back.
“This is never easy,” I said. “When the NTSB arrives they’ll assume responsibility for the whole operation.”
At that moment Crowe’s cell phone rang. I waited as she spoke.
“Another precinct heard from,” she said, hooking the handset to her belt. “Charles Hanover, CEO of Air TransSouth.”
Though I’d never flown it, I’d heard of the airline, a small, regional carrier connecting about a dozen cities in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee with Washington, D.C.
“This is one of theirs?”
“Flight 228 was late leaving Atlanta for Washington, D.C. Sat on the runway forty minutes, took off at twelve forty-five P.M. The plane was at about twenty-five thousand feet when it disappeared from radar at one oh seven. My office got the 911 call around two.”
“How many on board?”
“The plane was a Fokker-100 carrying eighty-two passengers and six crew. But that’s not the worst of it.”
Her next words foretold the horror of the coming days.