A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Oct. 21, 2010 Volume 41 / Number 2


Forensic Scientists and Students Assist in San Bruno Fire Recovery

For a slideshow of the goup working in San Bruno,
Photo: From left, Matthew Bently and Dane Cameron

On Sunday, Sept. 12, forensic anthropology faculty took a team of students to the site of the Sept. 9 San Bruno explosions and fires, at the request of the San Mateo Coroner’s Office. Forensic scientists Eric Bartelink, Colleen Milligan, and Turhon Murad, all with CSU, Chico’s Human Identification Laboratory, took 13 students and one recent graduate to assist with the fire scene recovery. They were joined by San Francisco State University forensic anthropology faculty members Mark Griffin and Cynthia Wilczak.

The group left Chico at 5:30 a.m. to assist in the forensic archaeological excavation of a house. The group used archaeological tools—trowels, screens, brushes, etc.—to carefully uncover debris to find evidence of human remains. “In fire scene cases,” said Bartelink, “the intensity of the fire may result in remains being burned and fragmented to the point where the average person wouldn’t recognize what they were looking at.”

The archeological methods, help to maximize the recovery of human remains, explained Bartelink, director of the Human Identification Laboratory. This is important, he said, to increase the likelihood of finding items, such as dental remains, that can be useful for making a positive identification.

The group arrived in San Bruno by 9 a.m. and worked continuously, sifting through debris until 7 p.m. The mission was successful, Bartelink said. Many agencies, including local police and fire rescue teams, the San Mateo’s Coroner’s Office, and the National Transportation and Safety Board, cooperated in the effort.

 “When searching for bone that may be burnt or fragmented, you’re looking for features that you recognize on the fragments—bumps, grooves, lines—that not only give you some information on whether the fragment is human, but what specific bone it is or what side of the body it comes from,” said Milligan, physical anthropologist.

“In scene or on-site recoveries, you are also looking to map where objects are found and at what depth,” Milligan said. While we can teach bone identification and archaeological excavation techniques in a classroom setting, field experience is really what accelerates the learning curve for our students. For the San Bruno recovery, the students were meticulous in their approach to the recovery. They worked as professionals and used teamwork to maximize how effective they were. That effort goes above what we can teach.”

Second-year graduate student Susan D'Alonzo confirmed the value of the on-site experience. “This was my first time involved in a recovery that was as large scale as San Bruno was,” D’Alonzo said. “The degree of destruction that resulted from the blast was devastating. With several agencies involved, I was amazed at how well coordinated the rescue efforts were. The area where we were working was quite large, but everyone from the University, and those helping us—police, fire, and individuals from the medical examiner’s office—really worked diligently to complete the recovery. I'm glad our department was called in to aid in the effort. Knowing that our contributions helped in the overall scheme of things is quite rewarding.” 

Eric Bartelink, PhD, director of the Human Identification Laboratory at CSU, Chico. He worked on international forensic cases in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the victim identification effort after the World Trade Center disaster.

Colleen Milligan recently completed her PhD at Michigan State University and is a new faculty member at CSU, Chico. She has worked internationally on bioarchaeological projects in the United Kingdom and Belize. While at MSU, she worked on policy development related to mass fatalities within the United States as part of a fellowship with the Department of Homeland Security.

Turhon Murad, PhD, Diplomates of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at CSU, Chico, is a physical anthropologist with academic interests in skeletal biology and forensic anthropology. He has worked with local and federal law enforcement on cases throughout the Western United States. He developed the Human Identification Lab at CSU, Chico.

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications