Recently I was asked to recount the “single most interesting thing that ever happened to me.” Even if I included all of the things that would qualify as too obscene to print (ha!), one event made a greater impression on me than all of the others combined, though it is now some thirteen years in the past. Since it’s not the sort of thing that typically makes for good cocktail party conversation, I figured I might as well memorialize it here.
In September 1994, I was a third year dental student at the University of Pittsburgh when USAir Flight 427 dropped inexplicably out of the evening sky and crashed into a wooded region a few miles outside of Pittsburgh, killing all 132 passengers and crew. The Pennsylvania Dental Association’s Dental Identification Team (PADIT) was called to take part in the massive effort to identify the remains of those who lost their lives in the crash. A few days after the recovery efforts began, PADIT put out a call to dental students to assist in the daunting task.
I cancelled my afternoon patients and along with two friends/classmates, reported to the U.S. Air Force hanger which had been established as a disaster recovery center. We joined Pittsburgh’s chief forensic odontologist in examining crash victim remains as part of a highly-organized team of pathologists, forensic anthropologists, FBI officials, and others. My friends and I were all grateful and a little awestruck to be included and even treated as respected members of such a highly-qualified team.
Ultimately, the substantial majority of those who lost their lives in the tragedy were identified through dental records. It was a rare and unforgettable experience for my friends and for me. All three of us would later train to become maxillofacial surgeons, although after some years I left that calling to pursue a career in the law.
Even now, I am frequently reminded of the experience, though I have since moved away from Pittsburgh and I haven’t seen those friends in many years. I think that we all looked at it as a rare opportunity, though a tragically sad one at that. I cannot express the profound impact that the experience had upon me.