April 19, 2014 When Disaster Hits: Naming the Dead — An Interview with Paul Sledzik, Director of the NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance Division

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How does forensic science help us in the aftermath of disasters such as plane crashes, floods, hurricanes and other events that result in mass fatalities?  We find some answers in this episode, when D.P. Lyle and Jan Burke interview Paul Sledzik.


Trained as a forensic anthropologist, Paul Sledzik began his career at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC as a museum technician. By the time he departed the museum in 2004, he had become a curator with responsibilities over the museum’s unique and historic anatomical and pathological collections. From 1998 to 2004, he served as the team commander for the Region 3 Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the response to the events of September 11, 2001, he led the DMORT team in the identification of the victims from the crash of United flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Paul joined the National Transportation Safety Board’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division in 2004 as a medicolegal specialist and in 2010 became the division director. The division coordinates access to information and services to support victim and family members impacted by aviation accidents and accidents in other transportation modes.

He has served as a consultant and advisor to federal and non-governmental agencies on issues of human identification and disaster response. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, his scientific articles have appeared in professional journals and textbooks. He has participated in the response to over 30 mass fatality events and transportation accidents.

In this episode, he tells us about historical responses to mass disasters, such as the General Slocum disaster of 1904, which caused the loss of over one thousand lives.  He’ll also talk to us about today’s processes for dealing with mass fatality events, the role of forensic scientists in processing mass fatality incidents, and the work done on these sites by forensic anthropologists and other specialists.

Near the end of the interview, we were also able to talk to him a little bit about his work on historical remains belonging to “New England Vampires.”



June, 1904: Bodies washed ashore on North Brother Island after the General Slocum disaster, an event which caused 1,021 fatalities. According to the New York Public Library,”The next largest death toll in the United States would come decades later with 2,974 dead from 9/11.”






National Transportation Safety Board https://www.ntsb.gov
NTSB: Information for Families, Friends, and Survivors https://www.ntsb.gov/tda/family.html
NTSD: Family Assistance Operations: Planning and Policy http://www.ntsb.gov/tda/ops.html
The National Museum of Health and Medicine http://www.medicalmuseum.mil/index.cfm?p=about.index
Federal Emergency Management Agency http://www.fema.gov
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Public Health Emergency/DMORTs: http://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/responders/ndms/teams/Pages/dmort.aspx
New story on study of preservation of DNA in mass disasters http://phys.org/news/2013-09-team-dna-mass-disasters.html
The General Slocum Disaster, New York, June 15 1904 — over 1000 lives lost
General Slocum Disaster information at New York Public Library http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904
“Sinking of the General Slocum” information at The Mariners Museum http://www.marinersmuseum.org/content/sinking-steamboat-general-slocum
General Slocum Disaster information at New York History.Info  http://www.newyorkhistory.info/Hell-Gate/General-Slocum.html
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York, March 25, 1911 — over 140 lives lost
The Eastland Disaster, Chicago, July 24, 1915 — over 800 lives lost, including all members of 22 families
Eastland Disaster Historical Society description of the disaster http://www.eastlanddisaster.org/disaster.htm
Montage of newspaper photographs of the event on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Qxy5yAXb4
Eastland Disaster documentary on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZp0kW3O6Uc
New England Vampires

“Brief communication: bioarcheological and biocultural evidence for the New England vampire folk belief.” (American Journal of Physical Anthropology)   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8085617

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