“Heading to the airport to “save people” in Haiti (That’s what the kids think). One last check of my packing list: Mosquito net – check, DEET – check, waterless shampoo – check, flashlight – check, anti-malarials – check. Holy crap!!!! I forgot my blow dryer and curling iron!”
Facebook Status Update, February 24 at 6:51am

“Never underestimate the power of 35 seconds,” Dana Kollmann emphasizes. “In Haiti, over 233,000 people died, and countless more were injured or left homeless by an event that lasted only 35 seconds.”

Dana is one of 30 professionals who volunteered for the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, known as DMORTs. These teams track down, identify and prepare the remains of disaster victims for burial. With over ten years of crime scene investigation experience in Maryland police departments, Smithsonian field work with human remains in cemeteries and museums around the USA, and several trips to work on mass graves in the former Yugoslavia, “I knew I had a skill set that would be useful to the team when I was deployed to Haiti. Now that I have returned, I feel that all of my career and academic choices played a role in preparing and enabling me to do my job to the best of my ability.”

“We spent the day trying to track down two particular Americans that are presumed dead, but their last known locations are in question… Tomorrow I think I’m slated for the Hotel Montana. We have identified or processed all of the bodies that were in storage, so we are ahead of the game and are now serving on field recovery teams. Anthros are needed in the field to determine ethnicity and assess the teeth for evidence of western dentistry. If certain criteria are met, the remains are brought back to the morgue. Otherwise they are released to the Haitian government.”
Facebook Status Update, February 28 at 7:59pm via Facebook for iPhone

Dana’s team began with a master list of missing Americans that included information such as age, sex, dental work, and other physical attributes. They then tracked down the last known location of the individual. Many Americans had been in the Hotel Montana when it collapsed, but others had been out and about. In some cases American remains had been taken to mass graves or burned or buried elsewhere. “We did everything possible to track down every American until their trail could not be followed any longer, or until we found them,” Dana said.

Ruins of a hotel. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

The team began with bodies “in storage,” already in the morgue awaiting identification. The heat and full body protective equipment they wore necessitated breaks every twenty minutes, when they would cool off, hydrate, and have their vitals checked before returning to work. When not assigned to the morgue, Dana and her teammates went on expeditions with the Army to track down Americans and recover their bodies.

“Wow…….television doesn’t capture an ounce of the devastation in Haiti. We worked at a location today where a man lost 12 family members when his home collapsed. We found 2. I’ll post some photos when I get home. Lots of irony…. market vendors hanging fruit from rebar sticking our of the pavement, people flying kites and having shoes shined and waiting in line to have car washed when the country is Destroyed.”
Facebook Status Update, February 26 at 10:21pm via Facebook for iPhone

Dana’s team struggled to cope with intense temperatures, awkward living conditions, and “the sheer magnitude of devastation and loss of life.” Their anti-malarial medications contributed to disturbing dreams, and they had limited access to medical personnel if an emergency were to occur. “I saw animals with amputations and unset fractures from the earthquake, families that had been wiped out, 7 and 10 year-old brothers that lived in the street because their parents had been killed,” Dana remembered. “I think most of us in forensics know that there MUST be an emotional detachment from what you are seeing and doing…We all had to maintain a sense of humor and keep a smile on our face, but it was never at the expense of a victim or a family. We primarily laughed at ourselves,” Dana described. “We joked about complaining to our travel agent about the accommodations and meals on our Caribbean trip. We laughed because the military failed to tell us the gum in the MRE’s was Exlax. I rolled my eyes because I had to learn the hard way it isn’t a good idea to walk and text while walking about 6 inches away from barbed wire.”

The Morgue. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann

The Morgue. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

Dana admits that “there are no strategies to deal with circumstances like those we encountered.” Humor, like any defense, cannot always win.  “In one instance… we encountered a 12 year old girl that had just been released from care. She had a broken leg and was going to walk “home” on crutches. Her home was over one-mile away and was straight up the side of a mountain. We wound up putting her in the Humvee and taking her home. We gave her rations of food and water and one of the other DMORT members gave her $20.00, which is a lot of money in Haiti. The military members then carried her into the residence and laid her on the sofa. I burst into tears.”

When humor fails, Dana finds comfort in the work itself. “I  seek solace in knowing that the work that we performed enabled a family to bring closure to the terrible condition of not knowing what happened to their loved one. It was a somber moment on base when, only a few hours after making an identification, we would watch the C130 take off en-route to Dover, carrying the body home to their family.”

“…This has been an eye opening experience. I have no reason to complain about anything in my life… I cannot imagine a “normal” day in my life consisting of peeing in the street, washing in filthy water, begging for food, living beneath a tarp, pleading for someone to buy a mango I picked from my tree, wearing clothes that don’t fit – if any at all… The weather has changed over the past few days and it is very overcast and has been raining at night. With the rainy season around the corner, the problems are only going to get worse. If you have it in you, think about purchasing a tent for distribution. One tent is a home for a family living beneath a piece of plastic.”
Facebook Status Update, March 7 at 9:09am via Facebook for iPhone

Tent City. Photo Credit Dana Kollmann.

Asked about the most frustrating part of working in Haiti, Dana responded: “Not being able to help the Haitians find their loved ones. We would have helped everyone if we could have.” Although Dana was unable to help the Haitians with her forensic skills, she has begun a tent drive. “I spoke with many Haitians through a translator and asked them what they needed the most. Tents were the most frequently requested item. USAID and some other organizations contributed a large number of tents, but there are many, many people still living without proper shelter. I saw people living beneath plastic that was tied to sticks. The rainy season has just begun in Haiti, so things will only get worse… One tent can be a temporary home for a family living on the street.”

If you are interested in contributing to Dana’s tent collection project, you can contact her at dkollmann@gmail.com.

To see the location of Dana’s base camp, use Google earth coordinates latitude N18 34.72 longitude W72 17.01.