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Coroners Recall Gruesome Task of Identifying Plane Crash Victims

May 23, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ For six days, Pittsburgh coroner Terry Browne crawled on his hands and knees through the wreckage of USAir Flight 427, pulling limb after limb from the smoldering wooded hillside.

He found jewelry with hands attached, torsos without heads and a 9-iron wrapped around a tree, its golf bag squashed like an accordion by its side.

But what makes Browne choke back tears even today _ 1 1/2 years later _ is the little sneaker he found among the bodies.

``It was from that family, the Weaver family,″ he says, recalling the family of five killed along with 127 others in the Sept. 8, 1994, crash.

Such certainty has eluded coroners trying to piece together the remains of the 110 victims of ValuJet Flight 592, killed May 11 when they plunged into the Florida Everglades.

After more than a week of searches that have yielded body bags full of parts, no one has been positively identified and no single body has emerged intact. Rescuers have reported finding limbs, a knee cap and fingers.

The Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office refused Wednesday to comment on its progress, but last week, Joseph Davis, a retired coroner who is taking part in the investigation, acknowledged there would be remains with no names. DNA testing may even be used, he said.

Even so, unidentified victims may outnumber the identified.

According to coroners Browne and Joe Levisky, a forensic toxicologist who helped investigate the March 3, 1991, United Airlines crash in Colorado Springs, Colo., investigators in Miami face a tougher challenge than they did.

``When we were dealing with it, it was like taking a dime and throwing it onto a football field, and trying to go out and find it,″ Browne said Wednesday. ``That’s on land. You’re dealing with water. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.″

In the Pittsburgh crash, in which the plane slammed into a hillside on the landing approach, six victims were never identified, even though there was no fire damage to the bodies in the cabin. Rescuers made identifications with teeth, fingerprints, clothing and jewelry.

One person was never positively identified in the Colorado crash that killed 25 people. The search area was largely confined to a 12-foot crater created when the Boeing 737 nose-dived into the ground.

``Everything was compacted into this small volume,″ Levisky said. ``You’re talking about sharp metal that whipped its way through the passengers.

``It was very gruesome task pulling metal and parts from the length of an airplane that had compacted into a 12-foot crater,″ he said.

The bodies of the unnamed victims in the Pittsburgh and Colorado crashes were buried in communal graves.

What is making the identification effort so difficult in the ValuJet crash are the same elements that are complicating the recovery of the aircraft, Browne said.

Ninety-degree heat and toxic chemicals that are hazardous to rescuers are rapidly decomposing body parts still in the water, he said. While no alligators have been sighted near the crash site, they are a danger to the recovery effort.

And searchers have yet to find an area that resembles the aircraft’s cabin. The entire plane and its passengers are scattered in shards across several hundred yards in up to 4 feet of water and several layers of mud and dead sawgrass.

``Our hearts go out for those guys down there, for the families,″ Browne said. ``I’ve never seen so much devastation.″

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