Swamp swallows jet," blared the newspaper headline in May 1996, after ValuJet 592, a DC-9 in a power dive, slammed
into the Florida Everglades and disintegrated in the murky, critter-filled water.
Miami's Dade County Medical Examiner's Office immediately went into crisis mode, dispatching dozens of employees and
setting up tents, supply depots, recovery stations and communications equipment on the nearest solid ground.
It initially was presumed that the bodies of many of the 105 passengers and five crew members would be recovered when
heavy equipment dredged the underwater crater, but hardly anything was found. The plane and its occupants fragmented on
Waiting for the deluge of bodies that never came, worried, short-tempered Miami medical examiners paced in their
Later, when the level of disintegration was understood, teams of searchers armed with nets waded through knee-deep
swamp water, snaring grisly bits of floating, decayed human flesh - all told, about 4,000 fragments weighing in
aggregate just more than 4,000 pounds.
Each and every piece was weighed, measured, photographed and described by a forensic pathologist. About half the people
on board the jet were identified by fingerprints, dentistry, tattoos and personal effects associated with the
It was a Herculean task. (Miami's former deputy chief medical examiner, who recently had taken a position in New York,made a jeering, Nyah-nyah" phone call to his former colleagues. Some higher power must have been offended, Miami
people teased in turn when - just two months later - TWA 800 crashed in his jurisdiction.)
Dr. Manfred Borges, an associate medical examiner on Florida's west coast, had completed his forensic pathology
fellowship in Miami and maintained close ties to the office. He offered assistance one weekend and drove the
200-miles-plus round trip to spend a long day examining and documenting the putrefied remains.
I never even stopped to eat," he said.
Dr. Borges, whose appearance was entirely Anglo, was of Cuban extraction and spoke Spanish fluently. Driving home
through Miami's Little Havana area in the evening, he was almost overcome by the mouth-watering aromas of Cuban
I can't go to a restaurant," he cautioned himself, stomach growling. I smell to high heaven."
His resolve melted when he stopped at a traffic light in front of the open door of a Cuban delicatessen.
I'll just run in and grab something to go," he thought.
He parked and waited cautiously near the door, maintaining his distance from two Cuban women standing in front of a
glass display case filled with pastries, breads and entrées.
With no idea he could understand, one turned to her companion: See that Gringo by the door? Does he stink! He must
Bathe?" her companion replied. He doesn't even wipe his behind."
Dr. Borges often regales colleagues with that story. Medical examiners can find humor in even the most calamitous
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.