Risking lives to retrieve bodies

Local news reported that one of the divers working at the I35 bridge site in Minneapolis had a close call, got tangled up in some debris and had to be rescued by another diver.

That was followed by a short interview with a family member of one of the victims talking about how they’re desperately waiting for information and answers.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen divers and other rescue workers risk their lives to retrieve bodies from lakes, rivers, mountaintops, cave-ins, etc.

I’ve never lost a loved one in that kind of accident. It’s unimaginable, the loss, and not having the body can only make it worse.

But at what point do authorities say “Sorry, we can’t risk more lives”? If a relative said “Stop, don’t search any longer”, would the search be stopped? Is there a protocol? Who decides?

Years ago when a water taxi overturned drowning several people in Baltimore the political pressure to recover the bodies was great. At one point a diver’s gear malfunctioned and was brought to the surface in cardiac arrest (but was revived and recovered.)

Speaking to some firefighter friends of mine at the time the assured me close calls and danger were routine, against all good judgement, and that someday someone would pay dearly…

I have a friend who’s a search and rescue diver, but more often actually a “recovery” diver. He has enough authority to stop diving the dive team if he considers the conditions too dangerous. And the individuals on the team can pull out if they feel personally endangered as well, but if there are too many such disagreements, that person won’t stay on the team for too long. As far as the big picture goes, how long recovery efforts go on is much more a political and financial decision. It was a BIG deal in NYC when they shut down recovery efforts after 911, and IIRC, just in the last few weeks there has been some kind renewed recovery efforts. I’m not sure why or what prompted it.

I believe in the work of reconstruction, excavating for foundations and the like remains and parts are occasionally encountered.

IIRC there are some 911 transcripts from the Mississippi Gulf Coast during Katrina when the rescue center had to tell people that they could not go out and help them. Of course that didn’t last long before the entire phone system and most EOC buildings were themselves destroyed. My first responder friends tell me that yes, there is a cut-off point where they have to tell folks that the rescue effort can not be continued at that time.

Surely you’ve read newspaper accounts which say things like “the search was suspended because of turbulent water” or “rescue efforts are on hold until the snowstorm moves out of the area”.

The one to decide would be the command person - the person in charge of the rescue effort.

When the next of kin or friends get their loved ones body back it helps them deal with the trauma of sudden bereavment and laying them to rest with a proper ceremony brings some sort of closure for them.

If they dont get the body back it doesnt somehow seem to sink in emotionally(though they accept it rationally) that the person is really ,really dead and the little iota of doubt at the back of their mind ,far from giving them a modicum of hope stresses them out subconsciously due to the uncertainty.

Also they may wonder if the body is being knawed at by rats,wild dogs,birds ,whatever and is the deceaseds soul wandering around ?both of which make them feel worse .

Bear in mind Im not talking logical thinking here but the thought processes of people who have just received a traumatic shock.

So while it seems illogical to risk lives for corpses it can save the families years of depression and often guilt though its not their fault.

Understood, but then it costs other families an equal amount of grief.

There have been several incidents where cave explorers have gotten lost and drowned in a series of narrow water-logged tunnels that the authorities have decided that any recovery operation would be too hazardous. I remember reading a story about how one body remained in its original location for 30 years until some amateur spelunkers retrieved it.

Bodies in sunken ships are routinely left there. I suppose at some huge cost and danger they could be recovered, but there is a limit.

When former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s son was killed in an avalanche the family called off the search for just that reason. I believe Michel was found the next spring.

Again, this amounts to a political question, how much public outcry vs. how much risk and expense. When that American sub surfaced and sank the tour boat a couple of years back and killed half dozen or so Japanese tourists, the US Navy went to extraordinary lengths to recover the bodies from very deep water. After WWII, they recovered all the bodies they could from the sunken vessels near the D-Day beaches. And that Kennedy kid who flew his plane into the ocean a few years back. And flight 800.

It seems to me that body recovery is about the most politicized thing that emergency services people have to put up with. And personally, I don’t think it has anything to do at all with grieving families. It’s about angry headlines, budget appropriations and PR way more than anything else. The more powerful the family of a victim, the more effort put into the recovery effort. My WAG is that it would chart out to be some kind of hyperbolic function.

I don’t think that all body recovery operations are created equal, though.
When dealing with nautical disasters, it’s often a case that getting the bodies out is so difficult as to be a technical impossibility. Especially if the depth is beyond about 200 ft depth.

OTOH, if one is putting divers down for an extended period of time to recover as much as possible of the wreck for the purposes of accident reconstruction, as I believe was the case with TWA flight 800, it’s hard to imagine telling the families, “Sorry, we’re just not going to bring up the bodies.” Even if that makes more sense to me.

With regards to the I35W bridge collapse, I wonder - how much of this body recovery is being rationalized that it’s simply less harrowing for the clean up workers if they don’t have to worry about coming face-to-face with a badly decomposed body in a few months? I don’t know that that’s a sufficient reason, by itself, to justify the risks that the divers are taking now. I do think that it can be added to the understandable desire of the families to have a body to mourn, as a possible reason.

The upper reaches of Everest has numerous bodies, mostly just puled to the side of the established routes and barely covered up, if at all. I suspect if one had the determination to climb Everest, and died in the attempt, they would want their body to stay up there.

Just attempting something like that indicates, to me, a desire that supercedes family concerns.

Not long ago there was an attempt to recover a particular body, someone who might have made it to the summit before Edmund Hillary and died on the way down. He was known to have carried a camera, and it was hoped it might provide evidence either way. IIRC, they never found the camera, and they had to examine something like 60 corpses in a relatively small area to figure out which was the right guy.

Do you need the bodies to collect life insurance or other benefits? Or would you have to wait 7 years to have the missing person declared dead?

Reading this reminded me of this story.

Is this the story you’re thinking of, Boyo Jim?


Yes, I saw a PBS program on it not long ago. There were corpses all over the place. It made me think of that crematorium where the owner just dumped the bodies in the lake and woods outside rather than burning them.

Sorry to hijack but holy crap I didn’t realize Edmund Hillary was still alive!