Part two: A coroner's nightmare

After the Joplin tornado, families of victims wanted loved ones right away. But a mistake convinced coroner Rob Chappel to be more methodical.

05/20/2012 5:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:32 PM

JOPLIN, Mo. He knows the voice the moment he picks up the phone. It’s the tone that sets him back.

Rob, we have a problem.

Rob Chappel has known Jerry Derfelt, a funeral director from nearby Galena, Kan., for years. The two have worked together many times, and in the hours after the Joplin tornado, Derfelt was among those who came to help Chappel, the Jasper County coroner.

It was Derfelt who brought 45 body bags that Sunday night. It was Derfelt who went to one of the triage centers, where several bodies had been collected, and delivered the victims to Chappel.

Now he’s calling because something has gone wrong. And Chappel knows from experience that in this business, when someone calls and says there’s a problem, it’s usually a big deal.

Before he even hears what it is, in his gut, he knows.

It’s Tuesday morning, two days after an EF5 tornado wiped out one-third of Joplin. Chappel has come home for a few hours to grab some sleep and food and change into fresh clothes. He needs to get back.

Bodies continue to pile up. Nearly 90 came in that first night and 20 or so the next day. He is expecting recovery crews to find more today.

Hospitals across the region, from Miami, Okla., to Springfield to Kansas City, are tending to the survivors. Some needed to have arms and legs amputated. This storm was violent, the injuries life-changing. Kids have cracked skulls, and many elderly people are barely hanging on after the tornado ripped through their nursing home.

Chappel stays focused on the dead.

The refrigerated trucks are set up and running, bodies already inside. Members of a federal mortuary team — known as DMORT, short for Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team — have arrived. They’re setting up their equipment inside an abandoned fertilizer warehouse, a building without running water or air conditioning, the new makeshift morgue. The team’s DNA expert is stuck in Boston, and the process of identifying bodies won’t start until tomorrow.

Families remain frantic to find missing relatives. They’re frustrated that little information is coming out of the morgue. They want their loved ones so they can bury them and begin their final goodbyes. Chappel needs them so he can go about a proper and thorough process to identify them.

He’ll soon find out how crucial that is.

Since the storm, Chappel has released only two bodies. One was the woman whose son found her draped over a window sill after strong winds sucked her halfway out of her home.

The other was a man whose family had identified him. They found his body at one of the collection sites and were sure it was him. They called Derfelt, a man they’ve known for years, and asked the funeral director to pick him up.

This is why Derfelt is calling. The family has realized the man isn’t their son after all.

Chappel lets that sink in.

It isn’t him.

He released the wrong body.


In his truck, headed for the new temporary morgue, Chappel can’t get the words out of his mind.

We have a problem. Not him. ... Wrong body.

This has been his biggest fear since the tornado hit and the number of fatalities continued to rise. He has worried that in the chaos of a natural disaster this mammoth, short cuts would be taken and mistakes made.

A misidentification? That’s a coroner’s nightmare.

Because when there’s one, there’s two. And if the actions that led to the error aren’t corrected, it could happen again.

The what-ifs haunt him.

What if the family had sent the body straight to cremation? What if another family had to forever wonder what happened to their son?

Chappel thinks back to Sunday night at the college parking lot. Bodies kept coming in. No one knew how high the count would rise. The task of identifying everyone — some came without names or locations or any information at all — was so daunting.

And here was this body, one that could be released. The man’s family was there and had identified him.

In his mind, a small red flag waved, telling him not to sign off on the release. Personal identifications aren’t a sure thing.

But the circumstances, the sheer volume of fatalities, the desire to let one family start planning a funeral — all told him it would be OK.

The family was sure.

It’s easy to second-guess now, Chappel tells himself on the way to the morgue. The whole thing is like a kick in the head. It’s God’s way of telling him that he must do things differently.

The misidentification isn’t the first time he has questioned personal identifications in the wake of the storm.

A woman came to Chappel with a picture of a young relative. Her family feared the little girl had been killed. The picture, to Chappel, looked as if it could have been taken that morning. He knew that because the photo perfectly matched a body he had in the morgue. Others around him agreed.

But when it came to identifying the little girl, the woman shook her head. (In the end, the mortuary team made the positive identification. It was the little girl in the picture.)

Any emergency professional will tell you that people’s minds, their memories and perceptions, are often unreliable after traumatic events.

That’s no solace to Chappel.

Now he has to fix this. Now he can allow no corners to be cut. Not now or in the days to come.

He and Derfelt will get the body back from the funeral home and send it through the same identification process as the others, then release him to his family, who hadn’t been notified.

As for the first family, the ones who called Derfelt, the right body still has to be found, as quickly as possible, and the identity 100 percent confirmed. (In a few days, he’ll be released to his family.)

Before Chappel reaches the morgue and spreads the word to others about the misidentification, he gives himself a pep talk.

First, he tells himself, the decision to release the body happened early, before he even knew about the federal mortuary team that’s setting up now.

Second, the misstep was caught early, before there was irreversible harm to either family.

The error could be fixed.

The process will be slower now and more methodical, but it will be sure. No more mistakes.

People may become frustrated that it’s taking longer to bury their family members. People may get mad.

But he knows it’s the right thing to do.

Chad Nelsen just wants to see his wife.

He turns to investigators, who first need to gather information about Sharyl. Height and weight? What was she wearing? Any tattoos?

He answers their questions and longs for some answers of his own.

Sharyl Nelsen, 34, was supposed to be home by the time the weather turned violent. Her shift at the AT retail store ended at 4:30 p.m. When the air started to spin and the tornado set down at 5:41, she should have been home.

With Chad. And the kids. They planned to go to the Webb City Walmart that night to buy groceries for the week.

Once he heard about the storm in Joplin, he tried her cellphone. When he couldn’t reach her, he headed into town.

Blocked along Rangeline at Seventh Street, he ran the 10 blocks to her work. There, on top of the rubble that just a few hours before was the store she worked in, was Sharyl’s blue Saturn, upside down and crumpled.

Someone told Nelsen that his wife had been in the back of the store. He and others clawed through the debris. He found her body there.

A year later, he won’t remember many other details from that night. He knows he got physically ill. He thinks someone helped him from the rubble.

The next day, when other relatives go to the store, her body is gone. He starts a new search for her. His mind goes to unconceivable places. Maybe she isn’t really dead. Maybe she has been taken to a hospital. He just wants someone to tell him.

So many husbands, wives and parents are doing the same thing in these days right after the storm. The list of missing is still in the many hundreds. Families make pleas on Facebook and radio stations. They flood hospitals with calls. They beg Chappel to let them see if their family members are in his morgue.

“My brother had a tattoo that had his initials in it,” someone says in a meeting organized for families. “I can identify it if you let me come over there.”

These meetings are tough for Chappel and the others at his side, the several Highway Patrol troopers and Newton County Coroner Mark Bridges. They listen as families pummel Chappel with criticism.

He tells them there was a misidentification early on, and that’s one reason for the methodical process. But no matter what anybody says, it’s next to impossible for people to think they won’t be able to identify their own family members.

What gnaws at Cpl. Brad Bearden is that he knows Chappel wants to give the families what they want. But he can’t. What if another body is misidentified?

And there are some things that people in charge can’t say, Bridges thinks to himself.

How do you tell people their loved one is in a refrigerated truck? How do you tell them we have to keep a system going?

Emotions are raw. A few meetings get so heated that the coroner is glad to have Bearden and a Joplin police detective at his side. But he feels for these families and doesn’t blame them for lashing out.

He campaigned for coroner, a job that pays $25,000 a year, in the fall of 2008 because he wanted to ease the pain of grieving families. After four years as deputy coroner and as co-owner of a Joplin funeral home, he knew how to streamline the process and speed things up. Families could get their loved ones sooner, prepare for their funerals and have some closure.

Now, in the aftermath of one of the nation’s deadliest tornados, he is the man slowing it down, inadvertently causing grieving people additional pain. And he feels it.

I want to crawl under the table and beat myself up.

Eight refrigerated semi-trailers, typically used to haul produce, are lined up outside the abandoned fertilizer warehouse east of Joplin.

All the dead, waiting to be identified, are stored here. Bodies are brought into the temporary morgue from the refrigerated trucks and taken through the various stations for identification. Then they are taken back for storage until, one by one, they’re eventually released to their families.

Bearden, who is one of several investigators combing missing persons reports used for identifications, looks outside at the line of white semi-trailers and wonders to himself:

Will we ever be able to get this done?

Inside the warehouse, that one mistaken ID will linger in everyone’s minds for days. Though it happened before Chappel even knew what DMORT was, way before team members started arriving in Joplin, it has set the tone for what happens next.

All bodies now will be identified using one or more identification stations set up in the morgue, including dental records, DNA, fingerprints and pathology, or medical examination of the body. Specialists also will pay close attention to tattoos and piercings.

Some cases start with good information. Like the woman whose family dropped her off and provided her name and where she was found. Or the man who arrived with a note bearing his name and family contacts.

One man has his name tattooed across his chest and more than $1,000 in his pocket, just as his family said he always did. Another victim was born with a second set of gums along part of his jaw.

Forensic specialists look at the information, check it against other characteristics and records, and deem it a match. Chappel has to approve each one.

On Wednesday, three days after the storm, Chappel signs off on his first identification at the new morgue. Several bodies are released this day, handed over to families waiting to plan funerals and memorial services.

More are released the next day, including Sharyl Nelsen. Her funeral would be that Friday.

This identification process is what DMORT’s members do. Those working inside the fertilizer warehouse have seen their share of mass casualties. Some worked the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center attack and Katrina.

The process takes time. Thought it took just four days in Joplin to get all the bodies through the identification system, some cases would need to wait several days for final analysis. Some may think corners should be cut to speed everything up, but Mike Henderson of Kansas City doesn’t see it that way. The chief of forensics operations for the Jackson County medical examiner’s office, Henderson came to Joplin shortly after the storm. He was the one to first tell Chappel about DMORT.

Henderson, one of the commanders of DMORT’s Region 7, knows family members are frustrated, tired of waiting. But the work must be thorough. It’s what he tells Chappel.

“It’s about being right,” he says.

And in the months to come, he’ll feel as he always does after working a tragedy like the Joplin tornado.

“I know our group comes in, IDs people and sends them back to the right families. That’s where I hang my hat.”

On Wednesday, June 1 — after clocking thousands of hours of painstaking work by hundreds of investigators, forensic specialists and funeral directors, after enduring all the emotional strain — Chappel signs off on his last identification. The last body is released.

He and the team feel odd in this moment. There are no high-fives, no cheers. They feel satisfaction, but no joy. Not when they think of the job they just completed, or the number of families about to bury people they loved.

Chappel is relieved his job is done. Once he packs up and walks out the door of the makeshift morgue, he can leave the tornado behind him.

But he’ll soon discover it won’t be that easy.

TOMORROW: One year later, the community has changed, and so has the coroner.

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