No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


September 11, 2001
Jeffersonton, Virginia

As Owsley walked into the office off his living room, sunlight streamed in through the open windows. Birds chirped outside. There were no other sounds. He was not used to the quiet serenity of his newly purchased ten-acre farmhouse in rural Virginia.

At Susie’s insistence, they had purchased the property—complete with horse stables, barns, fenced fields, and a vegetable garden—months earlier. After spending thirteen years in a cramped townhouse in the crowded D.C. suburbs, Susie decided they had to move to the country. With the children no longer living at home and Doug’s extensive travel schedule, she was often home alone. She wanted horses and a farm to occupy her time.

Susie also figured the increased distance from the Smithsonian would keep Doug home more and help him develop some hobbies. He had gone his whole adult life without a hobby. He did not have time for one. The farm forced him to make time to tend the vegetable garden and to mow the acres of grass with a tractor, outdoor activities he thoroughly enjoyed. But even when he was weeding or riding the tractor, his mind was on bones. To him, an hour on the tractor was an hour to visualize a research project in his mind.

Nor did the new four-hour round-trip commute between the farm and the museum reduce Doug’s time at the office. Instead, he revised his schedule, spending two days a week at home writing reports from his home office. The other three days he worked at the Smithsonian without returning home, choosing instead to sleep in his office to avoid the commute and maximize his work productivity. At nighttime he would unroll a foam pad that he kept tucked behind his desk and sleep on the floor.

Enjoying a day at home, he sat down at his desk. Suddenly the phone rang. He could see from caller ID that it was coming from his office at the Smithsonian.

“Doug,” said his assistant Kari Sandness, “do you know what’s going on? Turn on your TV.”

He hung up and turned on the television. The Pentagon was on fire. A news broadcaster explained that a jet airliner had been purposely flown into the building.

The remote control in his hand, Owsley ran to the front door and yelled toward the barn for Susie. “You need to come inside right away!”

The urgency in his voice startled her. Doug never raised his voice. She left the horses and ran toward the house.

Inside she found Doug standing in front of the big-screen television.

“What is it, Doug?”

“The Pentagon has been hit,” he said, his eyes fixed on the screen. “We’re under attack.”

She looked at the screen. “Oh my God!” she said.

They both stood motionless. Then panic set in. “Where’s Hilary?” Susie blurted out.

Hilary had recently started working as a budget analyst for the U.S. Navy. Her office was at the Pentagon. But she was sometimes assigned to off-site locations.

“I don’t think she’s working at the Pentagon right now,” Doug said.

“No, Doug, I think she is.”

They looked at each other. It dawned on them that they had no idea which part of the Pentagon Hilary worked in.

“Try her cell phone,” Doug said.

Susie dialed it. She could not get a signal.

Suddenly the television coverage shifted to New York City. One of the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. Anger overcame Doug. The country, he thought, was at war. Someone had deliberately attacked American institutions. Hilary worked at one of them, and he could not locate her.

Their phone rang. Susie snatched up the receiver. “Owsleys.”

It was their other daughter, Kim. She wanted to know if Hilary was safe.

Moments later the phone rang again. This time it was Susie’s sister in Wyoming, calling to see if Doug was trapped in the city. Susie started explaining that Hilary was the one in the city.

“Get off the phone!” Doug said anxiously. “You’ve got to get off that phone so Hilary can call.”

For the next two hours they sat on their leather sofa watching television. The longer they waited, the more they feared the phone call. Finally it came. The voice on the other end belonged to a complete stranger. “Who is this?” the man asked.

“Susan Owsley.”

Doug moved closer.

“I’m calling for Hilary Owsley,” the man said. “She wants me to let you know she can’t get on the phone right now. But she’s OK. She got out.”

Hilary’s office had been destroyed by fire. She and her coworkers had escaped moments before the ceiling collapsed.

Tears trickled down Susie’s face.

The man hung up before she could get his name.

Doug wrapped his arms around Susie. His eyes welled up. Silent, they cried as television footage of New York City and Washington in chaos played on behind them.

Three days later

Doug’s home office phone rang. It was Joe DiZinno from the FBI.

“Doug, this is the phone call you have been expecting.”

DiZinno informed Doug he was to report to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware the following morning. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office had activated a mortuary facility to receive all human remains from the Pentagon. Owsley’s mission was a familiar one: separate and sort commingled remains, help select appropriate bone and soft-tissue samples for DNA typing and identification, and establish a personal identification and cause of death through analysis of skeletal pathology. He would work alongside a team of radiologists, dentists, and medical examiners.

As soon as he hung up, Owsley packed his duffel bag. The next morning he said good-bye to Susie, unsure when he would return.

When he arrived at Dover, he was told that he must abide by the Dover Code: What you see here stays here.

He donned rubber gloves, a mask, and a medical suit and approached the tables. The bodies were fresh. Decomposition was advanced. Sadness struck him like never before. He started to think about what he was seeing, the tragic finality that had come to hundreds of innocent people.

Without moving his lips, he talked to himself. Block it out, he thought. He had done this drill so many times before. Families needed him. They needed to have their loved ones identified. But his daughter’s remains could have easily been in one of the body bags. At that moment, his job was the worst one in the world. But no one could do it better. He reached for a body. As soon as he touched bone, he hit his rhythm.

For the next seven days he worked twelve-hour shifts sorting and identifying the dead. Of the 189 Pentagon casualties, he worked on 60 of them.

When it was over, he did something he had never done. He wrote down his thoughts.

The experience of Dover is part of the applied extension of my professional training, but it is on a different scale. It parallels my work at Waco on the Branch Davidians, or the help I provided in identifying soldiers killed in Operation Desert Storm, or the field and morgue work that I have done in Croatia on civilian casualties and mass graves from the Serbian invasion.

From my perspective, the Dover work is truly hard core forensics. We carefully evaluated remains that were frequently incomplete, often fragmented from having been torn apart by the impact, sometimes commingled with the tissues of others, and in some cases severely burned.

I numb out many of the harsh realities that I deal with in forensic investigations. But I will always remember how fortunate my family was not to have a child among those lost.

I will remember the faces as I saw them, as contrasted with the smiling faces seen in family photographs recovered as personal effects from wallets.

And I will always remember mortuary affairs staff patiently cleaning salvageable rings and jewelry so that they can be returned to families, trying diligently to remove all traces of the horrific event that caused the loss of a loved one.

When he finished, he gave the document to Hilary. He wanted her to have a record of his thoughts, something she could look back on years after he passed away.

A few months later, the Department of Defense awarded Owsley a medal and the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service. It was the first time he had ever received a medal for his service.