Mercyhurst forensics team assists in Ohio plane crash

Kimberly Kuehl, Contributing writer

When a plane crashed Nov. 10, 2015, in Akron, Ohio, the Summit County Medical Examiner knew whom to call.

Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D., the director of the Mercyhurst Applied Forensic Science program and an expert in victim recovery, led a team of 24 people from Mercyhurst as they assisted at the crash site in Ohio.

“Dr. Koehler, there in Summit County, had been at the scene and realized that we would be of value,” Dirkmaat said. Twenty graduate students and four faculty members spent five hours on the scene in Akron. Using forensic science skills that they learned at Mercyhurst, the graduate students assisted in the successful recovery of all nine victims.

“The medical examiner was very familiar with what we can do—what I can do—so there was a representative at the scene. I was basically in charge of the recovery and organized it and ran it,” Dirkmaat said.

Being called to such scenes is not uncommon for Dirkmaat, and he has been the primary anthropologist at many disaster scenes. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dirkmaat was the primary adviser during the recovery and identification of victims on United Flight 93 in Somerset County, Pa.

The team from Mercyhurst has helped Dirkmaat at some of these crashes, including the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, New York. Using forensic archeology they “collect the evidence, process it like it was an indoor scene, and collect all the information,” Dirkmaat said.

This practical experience is invaluable to students.

“I feel better prepared for the professional world after participating in this ‘real world’ situation,” graduate student Jordan Strange, one of those at the Akron site, said.

Because the graduate students are only at Mercyhurst for two years, there is a high turnover within the group.

Working can be hazardous because of broken glass or sharp pieces of metal. The group from Mercyhurst removed debris from the crash site before they could begin to extricate the victims. The team from Mercyhurst will work anywhere from five to 10 such scenes each year. They use the same principles and practices whether there is one victim or multiple victims.

The Forensic Science program at Mercyhurst is considered one of the best in the country. In 2008, the department was awarded a substantial grant from the National Institute of Justice.

“I am very grateful for the hands on experience that Mercyhurst and specifically the Biological and Forensic Anthropology graduate program offer,” said Strange. “You can’t get this kind of experience anywhere else.”