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Mercyhurst forensic anthropology team recovers remains from gas well fire

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Mercyhurst University forensic anthropology team responded to the scene of a Chevron gas well explosion in Dunkard, Greene County, on Tuesday, March 4, to recover the remains of a missing contractor feared dead.

The explosion, which occurred on Feb. 11, ignited a fire that burned for approximately a week. Lead forensic anthropologist Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., and a team that included assistant professor Heather Garvin, Ph.D., 15 graduate students and two undergrads were provided access to the site only after it had been cooled and deemed safe. That was Tuesday, when they spent the day sifting through charred debris for remains of the explosion’s lone fatality, believed to be Ian McKee, 27, a field technician, originally from Warren, but most recently living in Morgantown, W.Va.

Dirkmaat said his team was able to recover evidence of burnt bone from the residue using specialized protocols for which Mercyhurst’s Applied Forensic Sciences Department is well recognized. The team will conduct a full forensic anthropological analysis of the material in an attempt to confirm identification.

Understanding the role of fire destruction in scenes involving victims is considered one of the more difficult investigative situations, said Dirkmaat, whose department several years ago received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to establish protocols for recovering and interpreting burned human remains.

“Fire scenes are not something we are called to examine very often, but we are particularly well qualified for this type of recovery,” said Dirkmaat, whose department lends its expertise to roughly 80 to 90 cases annually throughout Pennsylvania, and surrounding regions of New York and Ohio.

Fire can alter and consume soft tissue and bone to such an extent that forensic pathological analysis is limited, if not impossible, he said. The skilled forensic anthropologist, however, is able to discern burnt bone from a vast array of debris.

“Bone is composed of a mineral and organic component,” Dirkmaat said, “Even when the collagen is burned away, the mineral component of bones remains and we have the expertise to find them, identify them as bone, and even differentiate between human and animal bone.”

As somber an exercise as it is, Dirkmaat said there is satisfaction in being able to recover remains and bring closure to a grieving family. Further, Tuesday’s recovery was an opportunity for Mercyhurst students to engage in a hands-on learning opportunity that served to heighten their experience levels in a challenging aspect of forensic anthropology.

Dirkmaat typically assembles a team of graduate students to take with him on recoveries, but recently enacted a policy to allow select undergraduates with appropriate coursework and demonstrated skills to be part of the team. This time, he took two: Sara Rapp and Jacob Griffin.

“Being able to go on the recovery was a fantastic educational opportunity,” Griffin said. “I came to Mercyhurst all the way from Iowa because I loved the school and wanted to be able to help with casework. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, so being able to get this hands-on experience as an undergrad is priceless.”

The graduate students who were part of the team included Sarah Baumgarten, Kaleigh Best, Melanie Boeyer, Sean Carlson-Greer, Megan Chapin, Katie Cline, Lorraine Gentner, Alicia Grosso, Sharon Kuo, Kate Lesciotto, Cheyenne Lewis, Rachel Murphy, Kaitlyn Sanders, Chelsea Stewart and Alex Taylor.

Lending the perspective of a grad student, Rachel Murphy said, "The opportunity to be so involved in forensic archaeological recoveries is not an experience that graduate students typically get in a master's program. Being able to apply techniques and knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations is an important aspect of becoming a professional. I know these hands-on experiences will prepare us to assist with various kinds of death investigations in the future."