Illinois coroner helps ID bodies in Haiti

Brad B. Targhetta, haiti

Brad Targhetta, back row, in center, and some of his team outside the collapsed building in Haiti. (Brad B. Targhetta/P-D)
BRIGHTON — Among the relief efforts directed to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there in January were teams dedicated to providing a less obvious kind of help: bringing closure for the families of American victims of the disaster.

Brad Targhetta headed one such team, which deployed to Haiti in March to locate and identify the bodies of Americans killed in some of the thousands of buildings that collapsed during the Jan. 12 quake. Hundreds were reported missing after the disaster.

“We need closure, and we expect someone to take care of that for us,” said Targhetta, who headed a Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team deployed to Port-au-Prince. “I don’t want to say it’s a pleasure, but to give families the knowledge that their loved one’s identified, they can have a service and they have a place to go and remember them, it’s satisfying.”

Normally, Targhetta serves as coroner for Macoupin County and helps run Targhetta and Wooldridge Funeral Homes.
But when a major disaster or crash claims the lives of many people, he’s dispatched as part of DMORT, a federal program to offer assistance to local authorities in such mass casualty incidents. Mortuary teams are split into areas. Targhetta is the deputy commander of the Great Lakes Region, which includes Illinois.
Targhetta has been doing the work since 1993, crisscrossing the country to assist at plane and train crashes, a nightclub fire, New York City’s morgue after the terrorist attacks there and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

But the Haitian earthquake was unusual because it sent DMORT teams to a foreign country, said Tom Sizemore, deputy director of the Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees the mortuary team program.

“We were asked by the Department of State to assist … in identifying American citizens that were killed in Haiti,” Sizemore said. “There were a lot of American citizens affected, and the Department of State was looking to do whatever they could to help.”

The first mortuary teams were able to set up in Haiti about three weeks after the quake, establishing a camp that resembled the hospital from M*A*S*H. Team members lived and worked in tents and other temporary structures, slept under mosquito netting and used portable toilets, all in a camp surrounded by concertina wire near the Port-au-Prince airport.

Regional DMORT teams took turns serving two-week stints in Haiti. Some team members picked through wrecked buildings, like the luxury Hotel Montana where many foreigners died when much of the complex collapsed.

In a typical case, Targhetta’s team members were tipped off by Haitians who believed an American was in a collapsed building in Port-au-Prince.

The team picked through the pile of rubble, looking not just for human remains but also suitcases, briefcases, passports — anything that might help in the identification of bodies.

Eventually Targhetta’s team removed four bodies — an American and three Haitians — from the collapsed building, two months after the earthquake.

The bodies were then taken to the camp, where other members of the team sought to identify them through X-rays, dental records and other forensic means.

In the end, experts in different parts of the process have to agree before a positive identification is made.

“We have to be sure,” Targhetta said. “We may know who was supposed to be in there, but it’s presumption until we have proof. We might have a pretty good idea, but if you make one mistake, that means there’s at least two mistakes.”

Targhetta’s team returned home after their two-week stint in Haiti, and the DMORT deployments there wrapped up last month. The remains of all the Americans who could be identified were turned over to families. Haitian bodies the teams found were turned over to local authorities.

Targhetta is back home with his wife and children in Brighton but plans to continue his work with DMORT, despite the challenges.

Frank Saul, the commander of the Great Lakes region, says Targhetta “has incredible stamina and is always compassionate, cheerful and willing to do whatever is necessary and to do it well.”

Targhetta says the disaster work can be tiring and trying but also rewarding.

“Kids are the worst,” Targhetta said. “It pulls at your heartstrings. It’s not right, it’s not natural. But I do what I do so we can get them back to who they belong to. … I worry what’s happening back home with my family and business and such, but it’s part of life and they know I’m doing it because I want to help.”


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