Publication date September 4, 2007
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Beyond the Body Farm
The Rockets' Red Glare, Bodies Bursting in Air
Dealing with a Mass Disaster
Identifying one body can be a daunting challenge; identifying a dozen—and having to find their pieces and reassemble them first—can be overwhelming. It’s the sort of nightmarish scenario that mass-fatality teams now train for, against the possibility of airliner crashes and terrorist attacks. And it’s the scenario I suddenly found confronting me on a warm Friday in May nearly 25 years ago, in a part of Tennessee so rural and sleepy, I would never have imagined a small-scale apocalypse unfolding there, requiring swift, coordinated response by half a dozen local, state, and federal agencies.
Shortly after noon on May 27, 1983, I was just finishing lunch at the UT Faculty Club. The spring semester had ended, and summer classes had not yet begun, so I was winding down for a quiet weekend. Or so I thought.
Then Annette, my secretary, called from her office under the football stadium and had me summoned to the phone. “TEMA just called,” she said. Not a good sign. TEMA was the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, and if TEMA had a problem, it was likely to be a big one. “They want you to call this number in Nashville.” I took down the number and called.
I didn’t get much information from the call, but what little I got confirmed my worries. There had been an explosion in nearby Polk County, the TEMA official on the other end of the line said; they needed my help identifying an unknown number of mangled bodies. They had already dispatched a plane from Nashville to Knoxville to pick me up. The explosion had occurred around 11:30; they reached me at 1:00; the airplane would be touching down in half an hour.
I quickly rounded up two of my best graduate students, Bill Rodriguez and Steve Symes. Both were well trained in osteology—how to identify bones, and even fragments of bone. In addition, Bill had conducted a pioneering study of insect activity in human corpses, and Steve was on his way to becoming an expert in bone trauma (specifically, cut marks in bone). The three of us had just arrived at the general-aviation terminal at the Knoxville airport when the plane arrived. Less than an hour after my lunch was interrupted, Bill, Steve, and I were airborne in a twin-engine state plane. We had two more passengers to pick up on our way to the site: Dr. Cleland Blake, a forensic pathologist, and his assistant, Lane Moore. Blake and Moore boarded the plane at the small airport in Morristown—about forty miles northeast from Knoxville, as the crow flies—and then we turned southeast, skirting the western flank of the Great Smoky Mountains and then the lower foothills of the Appalachians.
Polk County lies roughly a hundred miles below Knoxville, in the extreme southeastern corner of Tennessee. Bordered on the south by Georgia and on the east by North Carolina, much of the county is mountainous, and very little of it is populated. Back during the Civil War, Copper Hill was a booming mine town that provided 90% of the copper used by the Army of the Confederacy. Between the mining itself and the acid runoff that resulted from it, Copper Hill came to resemble a moonscape: devoid of vegetation, its barren contours a bright, unnatural-looking orange. The mines began closing down in the 1970s, though, and in recent decades, the focus in Copper Hill has shifted to restoration: healing of a landscape that was laid waste by mining, erosion, and toxic chemicals.
Apart from the Copper Hill Basin, much of Polk County is farmland and forest, including 50,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest. Two beautiful rivers flow out of the mountains within the forest: the Ocoee, whose pounding class IV and V rapids attract hardcore kayakers and thrill-seeking rafters; and the Hiwassee, a gentler river, whose class I, II, and III rapids draw people in canoes, rafts, and even inner tubes.
Despite the stop in Morristown, we still touched down in Cleveland by 2:30 p.m. State troopers met us at the airport and drove us east to Benton, the town of about 1,000 people that serves as the county seat of Polk County. We took a two-lane blacktop south from Benton. As the highway patrol cruisers careened around the winding road at 80 miles an hour, it occurred to me that there might soon be a few more casualties before the sun set. I cleared my throat and said to the trooper at the wheel, “You know, these folks are already dead; they’re not going to get any deader if we slow down a little bit.” He did not take the hint, and we continued to rocket along. Within a few miles, I saw 15 or 20 vehicles—ranging from police cruisers and ambulances to sightseers’ pickup trucks—lining the roadside.
A large sign at the edge of the road identified the property as Webb’s Bait Farm, offering red worms and fishing tackle for sale. The owner, I learned, was a 30-year-old man named Dan Webb. Dan Webb raised happy worms, it appeared: a big, grinning worm dominated the sign, wearing a floppy fishing hat and carrying a rod and reel over what would be his shoulder, if he’d had a shoulder; dangling from a line in his right hand—he actually did have hands, this remarkable worm—was an enormous fish. Atop one corner of the sign, up near the worm’s head, was a video surveillance camera, aimed at the driveway. Not the sort of thing I’d have expected to see at a worm farm, given that I’d never heard of a worm-farm robbery. But then again, I’d never heard of a worm-farm explosion, either, so perhaps there was a lot I didn’t know about worm farms.
As we parked along the shoulder, joining the fleet of other vehicles, I noticed wreckage scattered across a hundred yards or more of hillside—cleared land, mostly, bordered on the south by a stand of young pines. There was a gap in the tree line; a closer look revealed that trees littered the ground there, felled by the force of the blast. Between me and the fallen trees, about fifty yards from the smiling worm, lay a lumpy white shape, which I recognized at once as a body covered by a body bag. A hundred yards beyond that was a trail of splintered lumber and twisted roofing tin, beginning at a shattered foundation, running toward the gap in the trees, and continuing deep into the woods. Only a few hours before, a large barn had occupied the foundation; now, it looked as if a ferocious tornado had touched down and decimated, with pinpoint precision, a single unlucky structure. As soon as I saw the devastation—and heard that a dozen or more people were thought to have been working in the barn when the explosion occurred—I knew that Steve, Bill and I had our work cut out for us.
At first the cause of the explosion was a mystery, and the locals were reluctant to answer questions, but before long the truth emerged. Webb’s Bait Farm, it turned out, produced more than just worms; it also produced fireworks, illegally and—obviously—dangerously. Although it was set in a rural area, and although it turned out that all the people working in the factory were related to Dan Web by blood or by marriage—including his wife, his mother, his brother, and his uncle—this was no small-time mom-and-pop operation; in fact, it was the largest illegal fireworks factory ever found (if “found” is the right word for it) in the United States, churning out millions of M-80 and M-100 firecrackers (which contain the equivalent of a quarter-stick of dynamite apiece)
The main part of the operation was housed in the barn, or what used to be the barn. To one side of the barn, several dozen grave-sized enclosures stood knee-high off the ground: the rectangular beds that produced the operation’s legal product, fishing worms. A stone’s throw from one end of the barn’s foundation, a white house still stood. A long, skinny building, it had been cobbled together over time; alternating regions of horizontal clapboards and vertical board-and-batten siding suggested at least three additions to the tiny original structure. One end was stripped of siding, and the long rear wall was buckled, but the house had fared remarkably well, considering how efficiently the nearby barn had been rendered to matchwood.
A two-door Toyota Corolla, parked near the barn, had also sustained some damage but largely survived. Its windows and rear windshield had shattered, and the right front quarter-panel was gone. So were all four hubcaps, exposing shiny hubs underneath. The trunk lid had been bent upward by a couple of inches, and the car’s sides bore countless scrapes from flying debris. The skin of the passenger-side door—which was facing the barn—had absorbed enough of the blast to flex inward, revealing the outlines of three horizontal steel beams in the door’s core.
TEMA wasn’t the only agency, and not even the ranking agency, at the scene. Overall responsibility lay with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—ATF—which enforces federal laws governing explosives. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office was out in force, controlling access to the scene. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was coordinating the recovery and identification of people killed in the explosion, which is where Dr. Blake and I came in, along with our assistants.
I was anxious to get started. We had a lot of bodies to recover, and on a hot afternoon like this, decomposition and blowfly activity start fast, and they gain momentum with dismaying speed. I told one of the TBI agents we’d need some refrigeration, and he radioed in a request for two refrigerated semi trailers, which—amazingly—arrived in a matter of hours.
But before I could start my work, a search warrant had to be served. When the barn blew up, Linda Sue Webb was reportedly in the house, but by the time the first sheriff’s deputy arrived, she had fled. Her husband, Dan Lee Webb, was in New York on business—selling fireworks, I supposed, to dealers stocking up for the Fourth of July. A deputy district attorney arrived around 4 o’clock to serve the warrant; lacking the presence of either owner, he served the warrant on the house itself, reading aloud as if the battered structure could hear. It was a bizarre legal ritual I had never before witnessed, though I’ve seen and heard it a few times since.
But even after the warrant was served, we weren’t yet free to search for victims. One big worry of the ATF agents was the potential danger from “unexploded ordnance”: fireworks that had escaped the initial blast. And indeed, a mobile home parked near the wreckage of the barn—one side of it peeled open like a sardine can’s lid—was jammed with enough firecrackers and bottle rockets and roman candles to shred the trailer and anybody near it. Luckily, the mammoth explosion—some witnesses claimed to have seen a mushroom cloud—had consumed the oxygen around the barn, so the blast itself had snuffed out the sparks and embers that might have set off the stockpiled fireworks. Just to be on the safe side, though, the ATF agents oversaw the bulldozing and burial of the trailer’s contents beneath several feet of red clay.
The bulldozing wasn’t done until 4 p.m.—later than I’d hoped—but with the summer solstice only a few weeks away, we’d still have a good four hours of daylight to find the dead and begin piecing them back together.
Miraculously, a teenaged boy working in the barn had survived the blast. He, like everyone else inside, had been blown through the roof. His trajectory carried him over the house, and he landed in the front yard. When the first emergency personnel had arrived, he’d been wandering around the yard, shell-shocked. He had already been taken to the hospital by the time I arrived, but as I began surveying the carnage, I marveled at his luck.
His good fortune was underscored by the fate of body #1, a large woman who had also been blown over the house. She hit the carport roof, punched through the corrugated fiberglass as if it were tissue paper, then skidded across the concrete, her path marked by a wide streak of grease. Shreds of fabric clung to her shoulders & arms; the rest of her body—such as it was—was nude, her clothing ripped away by the force of the blast and her buttocks turned silvery-gray, the color of gunpowder. She lay face down, her upper body on edge of the concrete, her lower body on a piece of the roofing she had shattered. Her left leg looked like a pirate’s peg leg: the foot had been blown off, and all the flesh stripped from the bones of the lower leg. Her right leg was largely intact; the shoe had been torn from that foot, but it had stayed on long enough to protect the sole of her foot: her toes were undamaged, though her ankle was shredded. The worst damage was at the other end of her body, though; the occipital bone—the base of the skull—was there, but the rest of her head was simply gone.
Body #2 had crashed through the metal roof of the house itself, splintered the 2 x 10 inch rafters, and come to rest in the attic. Another large white female, she, too, had been stripped by the blast. A two-inch drywall screw lay beside her; a piece of foamboard insulation was beneath her, while particles of the white foam and splinters of rafter were sprinkled atop her seared, bloody torso. She was lying on her stomach, her right arm tucked beneath her and across her body, emerging near her left shoulder. Her left shoulder did not have an arm attached to it; the arm had been sheared off about two inches below the head of humerus. Large smear of blood and tissue marked the spot where the woman’s head had impacted. The top of her head was missing, and her brain lay four feet away, next to a Christmas video—“Here Comes Santa”—whose box featured a cartoon train smiling at me from beside the brain.
Body #3—yet another nude female—was the only one that was not hurled from the barn by the blast. She was lying face up, her arms flung back over her head as if she’d been sitting near the origin of the explosion; as if, when it happened, it toppled her backward. Her flesh was burned to a crisp grayish-black, brittle and crumbly. Her lower legs were both missing from mid-shin down; her forearms and hands were gone, too. We would work in stages, I decided: first we’d do a quick search for bodies or torsos, so we’d know how many victims there were; then we’d go back and do a more detailed search for missing hands, feet, arms, legs, and other parts.
By now the refrigerated trailers had arrived, and since many of the bodies were disarticulated, or blown apart, I decided to designate one trailer for torsos, the other for appendages. We had no tables to work on, so we covered the floor of each trailer with plastic tarps to keep the wood from getting soaked with blood.
Police and other emergency personnel who frequently rub shoulders with death will understand this next bit of foolishness; others may be startled to read of a practical joke at a mass-fatality scene. Bill Rodriguez had gone through the woods looking for bodies; to get back to the command post more easily, he came out of the woods, climbed over the fence and the edge of the pasture, and walked back along the road. But when he got to the driveway, the deputy securing the entrance wouldn’t let him in. Bill saw Steve Symes nearby, and called to Steve, “Hey, tell this guy I’m part of the forensic team.” Steve assumed his most solemn expression and assured the deputy that he had never seen Bill before in his life. After several minutes of confusion, I had to come out and vouch for Bill. I told Steve that was not the sort of stunt to pull at a crime scene, but the truth is, the interruption gave us a few moments’ relief from the horrors strewn across the property.
Out in the pasture, between the barn and the woods, a line of flattened grass and a gouge in the earth marked the place where a body had hit, then skipped another 15 feet before coming to rest. This one was a young, slim white female—a 19-year-old girl, we learned, who had just graduated from high school a week before and was working to earn money for a trip to Europe. All the deaths were a shame and a waste, of course, but hers struck me as particularly poignant. Unlike the older women, she was not nude; she was wearing blue jeans, and denim is pretty tough. The right leg of the jeans showed little damage; the left pants leg had shredded, though, and the concussion had split open the left thigh. Her shirt had been peeled up over her head, her arms still caught in the sleeves; her bra was undamaged. Her legs, back, and shoulders were mottled with patches of pale, almost white skin, where the searing heat had blanched the flesh; I knew from my research that victims of mine explosions also tended to have blanched skin. Sadly, her mother was also one of the victims.
As my students and I worked to find bodies and body parts, the arson investigators and explosives experts were combing through the debris in search of what caused the explosion. Eventually they found the charred remnants of an electric drill, with a mangled paint-stirring attachment still cinched in the drill’s chuck. Their theory was that one of the workers was using the drill to mix a slurry of explosive ingredients when a spark from the drill’s motor—and an electric drill produces a lot of sparks, as you know if you’ve ever used one in the dark—touched off the mixture.
At the edge of the woods, we found the guy who might have been doing the mixing. He was lying face down—or at least, his upper body was—but his torso had been twisted 180 spine-snapping degrees, so his pelvis was facing up. That put his right leg where his left leg should have been; his left leg was nowhere near his body. His abdomen had been ripped away; some of his entrails were exposed, and the rest were missing. So was all but the top few inches of his left arm. Surprisingly, his face was relatively undamaged. Perhaps he had looked away—maybe stealing a glance at the attractive 19-year-old—as the fateful spark shot downward and the world exploded around them all.
The variations on the theme of catastrophic force were striking. Body #10, one of the three male bodies, was nude—except for his leather boots, still tightly laced around his feet and ankles. When we took off the boots, we saw that his feet were purple with bruises. One of his hands lay detached but nearby in the grass. His head was nowhere in sight.
Body #11 was perhaps the most bizarre of all. The explosion hurled him the farthest—nearly a hundred yards, skipping across a pasture and into the woods. As he entered the tree line, he snapped a branch on a pine sapling. The jagged end of the branch pierced his abdomen and snagged a loop of his small intestine, and as the body continued into the woods, the intestines unspooled like fishing line. Once he reached the end of the line, so to speak, he was yanked to a stop. We found him there—that is to say, we found his torso—at the end of 20 feet of intestine, still stretched tight as a rope.
People were not the only casualties. In the grass of the pasture lay a rabbit; it had been killed by the blast’s shock wave, but its fur was completely unmarred. Closer to the barn was a dead chicken, its tail feathers gone, showing it had been facing away from the blast. Another chicken had survived, despite the loss of one leg, but it remained rooted in one spot, trembling for hours, until finally one of the deputies put it out of its misery.
By the time the sun set on the scene of destruction, we had found 11 bodies or torsos, along with dozens of arms, legs, hands, and feet. We locked the trailers for the night, not that anyone in their right mind would have been tempted to steal their contents, then drove from Benton to the nearby town of Cleveland. You might think the day’s horrific sights (and smells) would have killed my appetite and made sleep impossible, but the truth was, I was starving and exhausted. I ate like a pig and then slept like a baby.
Saturday morning we began by making another sweep of the property, this time looking in more detail for smaller body parts—combing through shattered boards, looking under pieces of roofing, even scanning the trees overhead. My oldest son, Charlie—a high-school teacher who had a master’s degree in anthropology—came up from Atlanta to help us search. We did find additional pieces—a few ears and teeth and skull fragments amid the debris; a mandible and a foot-long section of spine (half a dozen vertebrae) in the woods—but after a while, it became clear that we had recovered everything that was reasonably recoverable.
It was time to piece the dead back together again, determine their sex, and identify them. But where to begin? We clambered up into one of the chilly trailers and surveyed the mangled torsos.
Normally, when a forensic anthropologist is confronted with an unknown corpse or skeleton, the first step—before attempting to identify the victim—is to answer four key questions: what’s the race, what’s the sex, what’s the stature, and what’s the age? In this case, though, we were trying to match victims with a list of names the police had assembled from relatives, neighbors, and onlookers who had known some of the victims. That would simplify the task of identifying the bodies considerably. The bigger challenge would be reassembling them correctly. Although many of the bodies were disarticulated and battered, it was still easy to distinguish the three male torsos from the eight females.
Next came the tougher problem of matching a daunting stack of severed arms and legs to the proper torsos. We would start, I decided, with legs. To simplify the task, we divided the legs into lefts and rights, then further subdivided those into shaved and unshaved legs. That way, if a female torso (and the majority of the dead were women) were missing a left leg, for instance, we could go to the pile of shaved left legs and look for one whose break or length or girth matched the torso’s. We had no tables to work on; we were simply crouching and slipping around on the bloody plastic lining the cold trailers.
The work went surprisingly quickly. Within a few hours, we had paired all the loose parts with torsos, and I felt certain, even without DNA testing (which wasn’t yet available back then), that we had matched things up correctly. We hadn’t found everything—a few fingers and toes and ears eluded us, and substantial portions of several faces and skulls were simply decimated by the blast—but we found most of almost everyone, which was remarkable, considering the force of the explosion.
In a community as small as Benton, giving names to the dead proved simple in the end. Although the locals had been reluctant to tell the authorities about the illegal activities going on at Webb’s Bait Farm, they were extremely helpful in identifying victims of the explosion—victims who, after all, were locals, too: neighbors and friends and family members.
By Saturday afternoon, with all the dead reassembled and identified, my work was done. We squeezed into the cab of the UT pickup truck for the drive back to Knoxville. It was slower than my flight down, but that seemed fitting, given the widespread mourning we were leaving in our wake.
A month after the explosion, Dan Lee Webb was charged by the state with eleven counts of manslaughter, one for each death, as well as one count each (by the federal government) of manufacturing and possessing illegal explosives. He ended up pleading guilty to the manslaughter charges and received a 10-year sentence, which he served concurrently with a 10-year federal sentence for possessing and making illegal explosives. He also received a much tougher sentence for life: the lifelong burden of knowing that his dangerous and illegal enterprise had killed his mother, his brother, and his uncle.
If a similar disaster occurred today, DMORT—the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams—would swing into action, arriving on the scene with portable morgues and a multidisciplinary team of forensic anthropologists, dentists, DNA technicians, pathologists, counselors, embalmers, and other professionals. DMORT is administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but most of its specialists—including a number of my former students, colleagues, and friends—are volunteers. DMORT volunteers spent weeks helping find and identify the dead in New York after the World Trade Center attacks, and weeks doing the same thing in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Back in 1983 DMORT did not yet exist, but TEMA, the TBI, the ATF, and other state and local agencies did a good job of pulling together a rapid and effective response to what counted, in rural Polk County, as a mass disaster.
Six weeks after my hasty flight south, Independence Day arrived. Skyrockets bloomed and boomed against the night sky of Knoxville, to the cheers of thousands of spectators. But I couldn’t help thinking of a dozen people, launched heavenward by a stray spark a hundred miles to the south.