Maine’s deputy chief medical examiner, who identified bodies in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing more than 25 years ago, warned Husson University students Tuesday that a mass tragedy of that size could happen again, and that they should be ready to respond and keep collected while doing so.
Dr. Fred Jordan, 81, a Maine native who moved back in 2004, was the chief medical examiner for the state of Oklahoma when far-right anti-government extremists blew up a federal building with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in April 1995. He spoke at Husson’s Gracie Theatre in Bangor to an audience of around 40, in an event primarily aimed at criminal justice and forensic science students.
Jordan said an attack on par with the bombing could undoubtedly happen again, noting that mass casualty events, unfortunately, are fairly common in the U.S. He said students needed to be prepared to respond and keep collected while doing so.
Jordan said he had spent years in the aftermath of the attack speaking about how he and his staff responded to the attack and consulting with others across the country.
“What we did became almost a model for how one handles a mass disaster,” Jordan said.
He brought up the recent attack on a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, that killed six and injured scores of others. The motive behind that attack is still unclear, but Jordan said the response by the Waukesha County Medical Examiner’s Office was likely not so different from his office’s handling of the bombing in Oklahoma City.
Jordan was in his office only a mile away from the bombing’s epicenter when it happened at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995.
He and his staff were primarily tasked with recovering bodies from the site and identifying the remains. Of the 168 dead, 162 died at the site, Jordan said. Search and rescue dogs sent from California became depressed because they were trained to find survivors of tragedies but mainly found bodies, Jordan said.
More than 85 percent of the victims were identified using dental or fingerprint records, or a combination of both. DNA technology was in its infancy and was only used in identifying four victims whom the office couldn’t identify through other means, according to Jordan.
Preparation is key when responding to a mass casualty event, he said. It’s much harder to create an infrastructure for responding in the aftermath than to do so beforehand, he said. It’s important for medical examiners to coordinate with others involved in the response, including police, fire departments, emergency medical services, media and funeral home directors.
Jordan also said it was essential to maintain as positive a work environment as possible under the circumstances. The job of a medical examiner’s office is far from pleasant: He and his staff spent 14 days digging up corpses that they then needed to identify. Then they had to inform families of loved ones.
“One of the major things you are trying to do is keep your workers safe, keep your workers healthy, keep them moving so they can continue to do the terrible job they ended up inheriting,” Jordan said.
It’s also vital to try to create a relaxing environment for the workplace and make sure staff feel comfortable speaking about what they are going through personally, Jordan said. He noted that many first responders feel guilty in the aftermath of tragedies.
“Structure your time and save some private time for yourself,” Jordan said. “That shouldn’t make you feel guilty.”
Jordan is not Maine’s only connection to the 1995 tragedy.
Michael Fortier, who was born in Lewiston and lived in Greene before moving when he was 7, was an accomplice to Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols as they planned the attack along with his wife.
Fortier testified against the pair in exchange for a reduced sentence and immunity for his wife. He left prison in 2006 after serving seven-and-a-half years of a 12-year sentence. He is believed to be hiding through a government witness protection program.
Maine’s medical examiner’s office has been deeply involved with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan said. But there are few if any similarities between the continuing pandemic and a mass casualty event like the Oklahoma City bombing.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has counted 1,327 deaths from the virus in the state since the first case was confirmed here on March 12, 2020, an average of about two a day during that period.
Identifying bodies after the Oklahoma City bombing had a legal component not present with COVID-19, Jordan said: The medical examiner’s office report helped build a case against the attack’s perpetrators.
“COVID was an ongoing, progressive event, which was relatively controlled,” Jordan said. “This was an acute event in one location, which was not controlled at all.”