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What happens to the remains of the bodies and the personal belongings of the victims of major tragedies

The story of Robert Jensen - he "restores order" after the attacks and high-profile tragedies, collecting the remains of the dead and supporting their relatives.

Robert Jensen. Photo by Kenyon International Emergency Services

Explosions in Oklahoma City in 1995, 11 in September 2001, Hurricane Katrina - Robert Jensen knows these names far from the news. He is one of the first to arrive at the crash site, helps in the investigation, collects the remains and belongings of the victims. Sometimes it is his company, not the government, that is responsible for “cleaning up” after the tragedy and communication with the relatives of the deceased. The story of Jensen told the GQ edition, and translated TJournal.

"The worst job"

Robert Jensen does not have a unique talent. Instead, behind his back many years of experience in harsh conditions, when you need to act tough and operational: including collecting the bodies of the dead, identifying personal belongings or talking to relatives of the deceased. Every year, his English company Kenyon International Emergency Services accepts 6-20 emergency calls from anywhere in the world.

He responds not only to high-profile tragedies like September 11 or Hurricane Katrina, but also to incidents that do not get into the media. In 2008, the businessman went with the team to the place of the helicopter crash in the jungle of Peru: the heat was high, and because of fear of stumbling upon snakes and pumas, the squad dispersed and moved in pairs. At the approximate point of the helicopter crash, 23 of a kind of poisonous snake dwelled, but the Jensen team had an antidote for only three.

The task of the detachment was to search for personal belongings, human remains and any items that can be returned to the relatives of the victims. That time, the team collected 110 skeletal fragments and personal items. Already before departure, the head of the company noticed a large piece of human skin hanging from a branch high above the ground. Despite the risk of failure, Jensen gave the command to return only after he took the remains.

"They (relatives of the victims - approx. Tj) were able to understand that the bodies of their loved ones were not just left in the jungle. Even fragments, ”explains Jensen.

From experience, he knows that even the smallest reminders of a person help relatives survive their loss.

The team brings its findings to the base in the town of Bracknell, an hour's drive from London. It looks like the company's office is small and unremarkable, but in the depths of the building there is a huge hangar: the dead and working tools are kept there. These include bags, first-aid kits, and body armor in case a team travels to a combat zone. There is a basket with prayer rugs for Muslim families and a box with teddy bears in Kenyon T-shirts for children at Family Help Centers.

In another corner there is a truck with a large fridge inside - in fact, this is a mobile morgue. Slightly at the tables, the employees sit at the tables and carefully collect information about the departed, in order to make it easier for relatives to determine their identity.

Rare craft

Kenyon International Emergency Services moved into a large hangar not immediately, but the name Kenyon has long been associated with an unusual kind of services. In 1906, Harold and Herbert Canyons, the sons of a British undertaker, were asked to identify and return to their relatives the bodies of 28 people who died in Salisbury due to a train derailment. At that time, there were no DNA tests, therefore, the identities of people were confirmed with the help of fingerprints and dental charts, if the corpses had teeth, or with the help of their belongings.

In modern times, it is believed that the state is engaged in cleaning up all the consequences of disasters. Often it is - Jensen began his career in the field with work in the army morgue in 1998. But besides the special services and the army, private companies like Kenyon are engaged in the “cleaning” business. Basically, because in such firms work professionals with great experience, and in their actions there are no political motives.

During the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, more than 40 countries lost their tourists, and each state sought to take the bodies of its citizens first. The trouble is that after the tsunami the body is severely deformed, and to determine the nationality of the deceased, or at least his race is quite difficult. Then Jensen's team entered the business - it brought equipment that far from all countries possessed, and coordinated specialists from each state.

Along with terrorism, most of Jensen’s work is related to aviation incidents. Many travelers believe that in the event of a catastrophe, the airline will take responsibility for the work, but most often it is not. Airlines and the authorities turn to private experts, because in case of an error (mistreatment of the deceased's body, destruction of his belongings), the relatives of the victims can sue and receive a large amount for moral damage.

In this case, the reputation of the airline may be further undermined. It is much easier to shift responsibility to Jensen and his colleagues - they organize the work of the “hot line”, will take up the identification and return of the bodies of the dead, as well as the search for their things. However, sometimes the authorities of some countries cope on their own - once, after the plane crashed in Venezuela, local authorities only conducted a quick search for the remains, and then dug up all that was left with the help of an excavator from the nearest farm.

Searches for the dead

When an airliner crashes somewhere, usually Jensen is already in the know. He calls the airline, and in more rare cases - the authorities of the country where the plane fell. So the work begins: first, the team needs to find out who is responsible for what. Kenyon is a private company, so if the government decides to take on the work of the morgues, Jensen will only advise, but not coordinate the process. Within a few hours, his company can recruit full-time employees from 27 to 900 to independent contractors, it all depends on the scale of the tragedy.

Employees from various fields come to Kenyon, but often they come from law enforcement agencies with experience with evidence. As Jensen says, an overwhelming number of employees have strong empathy, but they are able to restrain emotions. While a squad of operatives is preparing to be shipped, other workers communicate with the hotel management. Relatives of the victims and Kenyon workers will be settled in it, so it should be large and practical, because for the next few days it will look like a large volunteer help center.

At the same time, Jensen is already at the scene of the tragedy. When he determines the state of the bodies, he calls the morgue - his employees are concerned not so much with the number of bodies as with their condition. For example, during the disaster in Namibia in 2013, Kenyon had to search for a more expensive morgue: although the entire 34 passenger was killed in the tragedy, 900 of various fragments were delivered there. Sometimes police, doctors, firefighters and the military work with the Jensen team, but the responsibility for the work still lies with the private company.

“You cannot undo what happened, so the best thing to do is not to hurt even more,” Jensen explains the work with the relatives of the victims. Before the beginning of a conversation, he always warns that he will speak directly, after which children are taken away from the place of conversation.

“You have to understand that this is a collision at high speed, which means that your loved one is no longer like you and me. I mean, most likely, we will find several thousand fragments of human remains, ”Jensen’s conversation with the relatives of the victims might sound like this.

Often families do not receive the bodies or remains of the dead for weeks. Sometimes they don’t give anyone anything at all — it means that a person doesn’t have information to share with friends, there’s no way to get money for life insurance or a funeral.

Examination of the remains

When the remains and personal belongings are collected, the Jensen team looks for dentist reports and medical records, and also communicates with families, trying to gather as much information as possible. Under a contract with Kenyon, relatives should choose one person who will be given the remains and belongings of the deceased. Sometimes people fail to agree, and then the court enters the case. The company gives the customer the opportunity to choose how to dispose of things: whether they should be sent by mail or handed over personally, whether they should be cleaned or left untouched.

At Kenyon, they try to preserve the found things as much as possible, but this is not always the case: after a crash, they get wet in the rain, get into the fire, or take in the smell of decomposition and gasoline. At the base, they are carefully laid out in sealed boxes and entered in the data about them in the online catalog. Sometimes there are old things, for which no one has come - it could be fragments of CDs, books, wedding rings, or a children's designer.

Usually, Jensen is personally looking for relatives who could pick up the things of the deceased. He studies the surviving photos or numbers from the SIM-card of mobile phones. Kenyon's head even refers the keys to automakers to get the ID number. Usually sellers can only identify the country where they sold the car, but sometimes it helps. The keys that Jensen found in the disaster area in France in 2015, were from a car sold in Spain. This greatly helped with the definition of owners.

Owner not found

Many of the things found by the Kenyon team will not return to the owners' relatives. Two years after the completion of the investigation (or a little longer if it was delayed) all things found in the zone are destroyed. Despite this, Jensen often remembers them. Sometimes he thinks about a woman who died in the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City in 1995: she had a high-heeled shoe on one leg and a normal shoe on the other. After the investigation, the head of the company realized that this girl had just entered the office and changed her shoes when an explosion occurred in the building. If she came five minutes later, she would have survived.

Kenyon usually delivers the dead by mail, but sometimes customers are asked to hand them personally. So it was with the mother of a young boy who died in a plane crash. Employees came to her house and asked her to leave the room so that they laid things on the table. The workers covered the objects with a blanket so as not to shock the woman with all the objects at the same time, and they invited me to enter.

Gradually, she studied everything: a passport and travel accessories, and then picked up orange hair curlers. Jensen was confused - the young man had short hair. Then he suggested that someone had mistakenly put the object in the bag of the young man after the disaster, and asked for forgiveness for the mistake.

The woman looked at the curlers and said that they belonged to her son. He picked up her mother's suitcase, in which she kept her hair curlers. The young man knew how they mean a lot to his grandmother, and just left in his place. After that, the mother of the deceased turned to Jensen: "I guess, Robert, you are trying to say that my son will not return home."

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