Identifying Remains, Arranging Funerals : Gruesome Air Crash Duty Is Mortician’s Challenge

Times Staff Writers

Samuel Douglass was hosting a Kiwanis Club board meeting at his home when the airline official called. A Pacific Southwest Airlines plane had just crashed near Paso Robles.

Douglass, an El Segundo mortician, left the meeting and immediately began making telephone calls. Was there a nearby building that could serve as a morgue? Were supplies such as embalming fluids and plastic body pouches needed? What was the availability of caskets?

The next morning Douglass drove to the site of the crash and set up a temporary morgue at a Morro Bay mortuary. And for the rest of the week Douglass supervised the delicate task of obtaining medical and dental records from family members and attempting to identify body parts.


Douglass, who owns five Los Angeles-area funeral homes, specializes in identifying bodies and providing funeral services after airline crashes. He is in such demand by airlines and their insurance companies that he’s adopted a special title--Samuel W. Douglass Air Disaster Funeral Coordinators.

As a mortician, Douglass has seen death in many fashions. Airline crashes, however, are particularly difficult and gruesome work because bodies are rarely intact. But, he said, a mortician, like a doctor, has a job to do and becomes inured to the worst aspects of the job.

“We know that the quicker we identify the people, the easier it is for the families,” he said. “They can then have the funeral. They can collect insurance benefits. They can get on with their lives.”

He has been called to the scene of 17 airline crashes since 1969 and has arranged last rites for thousands of people, including those who perished in the Canary Islands in 1977 (581 dead, a record death toll); the 1978 PSA collision over San Diego (144 dead); the 1979 Chicago crash (275 dead, most in U.S. aviation history); and last year’s collision over Cerritos, involving an Aeromexico jetliner and a small plane (82 killed).

Douglass informs the families that the airlines will pick up the tab for all “reasonable” funeral costs, an offer that covers a casket, flowers, shipping, the services of a hometown funeral director, limousine rides and a grave.

Earns 5% Fee

All this can be expensive. Douglass estimated that Aeromexico’s insurance company paid $400,000 to bury the 92 people after the crash. Douglass’ fee was about 5%.


Many plaintiff’s attorneys contend that the airlines’ insurance companies pay for Douglass’ services and provide lavish funerals, not out of compassion but out of self interest.

“It’s very common in personal injury litigation, particularly in major disasters, for insurance companies to put on their kindest face in dealing with victims,” said Peter Hinton, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Assn. “It makes the people, theoretically, easier to deal with. The idea is that they’ll be less likely to resist a settlement offer and less likely to consult an attorney.”

Douglass said the free funeral service probably has “some effect on the families, but that’s not the purpose.” The services are provided, he said, “to help alleviate the suffering during a very difficult time.”

Unless a plane crashes “soft”--at a speed of less than 150 m.p.h.--recovered bodies usually are beyond recognition, Douglass said. Yet Douglass claims a good rate of success in identifying bodies. In the San Diego crash there were only three people he could not identify; and in the Aeromexico crash, he identified all but 13.

Identification Process

So far Douglass’ team had identified nine people in last week’s PSA crash and he will spend another week in Morro Bay attempting to identify the others. In his makeshift morgue, Douglass obtains dental records, fingerprints and X-rays and personal data--such as tattoos and birthmarks. Then he examines the body parts for “match-ups.”

The insurance company has provided several clerical workers for his use, and 10 FBI fingerprint experts and four forensic dentists under contract to the San Luis Obispo County coroner also are helping to make the identifications.

Sometimes the impact of a crash is so intense, he is forced to bury a single tooth or just a part of a limb in a full-sized casket.

“If that’s all you have of your dad,” Douglass said, “that’s important to the family. . . . The casket is a tangible thing they see. They assume that inside is their father, who looks exactly as he did when he got on the airplane. And that’s the way it should be.”

Douglass also provides a service for the families whose relatives have not been identified. He arranges a mass graveside ceremony at a centrally located cemetery, complete with a boy’s choir and a press kit for the media.

Services for Families

The families are flown in, put up in a hotel, driven around in limousines and accompanied by a funeral director. If there are 120 families of unidentified victims--like there were after the Canary Islands crash of 1977--there will be 120 funeral directors and 120 limousines.

The unidentified remains, which are wrapped and numbered, are placed in caskets equal in number to the people presumed dead. And although there’s no way of knowing who is in the coffins, Douglass will place flight attendant or captains’ caps on the caskets that represent fallen crew members, American flags on caskets that represent veterans and, in the Aeromexico crash, Mexican flags for the Mexican citizens.

Douglass, 56, has the mien and reassuring manner of a man who spends his days comforting the grieving. He is a silver-haired, patrician-looking man who wears a gray pinstriped suit and suspenders. His voice is so soft that at times he is inaudible.

Because he has so little time to prepare, he keeps a “go kit” at home so he can leave the house quickly and set up a temporary morgue when he arrives. His go kit, which he stores in several boxes, consists of office supplies, charts, labels and, if needed, mortuary materials such as embalming powder, cotton, disinfectant, plastic pouches and gloves.

Call to Duty

Douglass’ first began working with airlines 18 years ago, when a passenger on a Pan American Airlines flight died from a heart attack. At the time, Douglass’ wife Jacque, was managing the airline’s private VIP club at Los Angeles International Airport. So Pan American officials called Douglass.

“A little while after that another airline had a few fatalities in a training crash,” Douglass recalled. “They called me, were happy with my work and it grew from there.”

Contacting the families and identifying the bodies after the PSA crash in San Diego, Douglass said, was more painful for him than any other air disaster. The father of the best man at his wedding and his daughter’s softball coach were aboard the plane.

“I knew them both well,” he said softly. “I was very close to the father of my best man. Emotionally it was very hard.”