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 cordonedoff 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.”

“Got proof?”

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.”

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