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Released SUNDAY, JUNE 26, 9:30 a.m.
Mercyhurst forensics team dispatched to Reno Amtrak crash by NTSB
Mercyhurst College forensic anthropologists Dennis Dirkmaat and Steven Symes are part of the “go-team” dispatched by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to the scene of Friday’s fatal crash involving a tractor-trailer rig and an Amtrak passenger train in the high desert of Nevada.
At least six people were killed when the rig slammed into the side of a California-bound passenger train at a railroad crossing east of Reno. Those killed included the truck driver and a train crew member, according to news reports. The death toll was not final with as many as 24 people still missing from the train's 210-person manifest.
Dirkmaat, who heads the applied forensic sciences department at Mercyhurst, is expected to lead the forensic anthropology recovery effort at the scene just as he did at the fatal Continental Express plane crash in Clarence Center, N.Y., in February 2009. He said the work of Mercyhurst’s team at the Buffalo area plane crash, a team that included himself, Symes and eight graduate students, did not go unnoticed by the NTSB and he is quite confident that is why in part Mercyhurst is being dispatched to the scene in Reno.
Dirkmaat is an expert in the archaeological recovery of human remains from outdoor contexts. Symes is an expert in bone trauma and co-edited a book titled “The Analysis of Burned Human Remains.” The apparent delay in reaching a death toll in Friday’s crash is due partly to the severe fire damage to two of the train cars, according to news reports.
Prior to his departure Sunday morning, Dirkmaat said he expects to employ recovery protocols recently created by his department through research funded by the National Institute of Justice.
“This will be one of the first practical applications of protocols for the recovery of fatal fire victims that we established here at Mercyhurst,” Dirkmaat said.
Dirkmaat and Symes will be accompanied by Ivana Wolf and Michael Kenyhercz, recent graduates of Mercyhurst’s master’s program in forensic anthropology.
“We have no idea what we are dealing with at this point,” Dirkmaat said. “I have heard it may be one car we will be focused on, but there may be more. We know the desert environment and the fire will combine to make it very hot; we’ll be dealing with hazards like jagged glass and twisted metal. Beyond that, we will need to see when we get there.”
The Mercyhurst team departed from the Erie airport Sunday morning and is expected to be at the accident site at least until Thursday.
Dirkmaat and Symes are two of fewer than 100 board certified forensic anthropologists in North America and the only two in Pennsylvania.