When an airplane crashes, we immediately visualize the wreckage and the resulting disaster scene. These scenarios often end in tragedy, and because of this, BMS CAT, Inc., is determined to make a difference through its job of restoring the personal effects (PE) of plane crash victims.
“Ultimately, we are providing a service to the families of aviation disasters, and I know there is not another company in the world that can do what we do, with our level of services and compassion,” said Mark Rocco, vice president of Document Recovery Services and Government Contracting at BMS CAT. “We are proud that families will have peace, knowing their loved ones’ remains are thoroughly recovered from a crash site and that their personal effects will be returned to them.”
This idea is one of the main drivers for the BMS CAT team and why they’ve experienced success in this niche area of restoration. The company started in 1981, per- forming commercial and industrial property damage restoration and reconstruction due to hurricanes, fire damage, terrorism, and other catastrophic events. BMS Global, which provides aviation and transportation clients worldwide with planning, response, and recovery services, started in 1996 when an aviation client requested it provides services to clean and decontaminate the personal effects of victims of airplane crashes.
Initial search for “intact” luggage and personal effects.
The American Airlines flight that crashed right after 9/11 was high-profile, tense and very sensitive. Then the TAM Airlines crash in Sao Paulo, Brazil was Time magazine’s Disaster of the Year.
Rocco gives us an inside look at how BMS handles its restoration projects, even the big ones such as the Hudson River plane crash, as well as the effect this type of work has on the team.
When completing an aviation restoration project, are you working for the insurer or the airline?
We are working for the airline. However, we have a close working relationship with the insurer and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Everything must be recovered, cleaned, decontaminated, and made available to the passenger or the next of kin in accordance with the federal law of the Family Assistance Act for Aviation Disasters of 1996. This was later modified to cover other forms of transportation disasters such as rail and waterway.
What is the logistical process for this type of restoration project?
All of the restorations of the personal effects are performed at our headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. We have a methodical process at the crash site for various issues:
- We weigh each piece of luggage (if any is intact).
- We photograph the site and the interior of the cabin before anything is removed.
- We may stake the area with color-coded flags to identify personal effects, human remains, or aviation debris.
- We may perform an onsite inventory.
- We may have to dig into the soil to search for embedded items.
- We may have to transport the soil to perform sifting operations.
What normally goes into the process of restoring items damaged in an airplane crash, and how does this differ from the restoration process for a more traditional type of loss?
We have to “make available” all personal effects regardless of condition. Therefore, we deal with partially burned items, deformed or semi-crushed items, and items with no visible damage. We also have to deal with heavy contamination from jet fuel, dirt, mold, bacteria, bloodborne pathogens, carbon fibers, and extensive by-products of the fire. Many items have to be processed multiple times to remove stains and odor and to ensure that they are safe to handle from a biological standpoint. We have developed proprietary processes over the years and, at times, we have surprised ourselves as to what we can restore for these families. We have a team that developed our processes that includes a certified industrial hygienist (CIH). In addition, we perform various process testing that includes biological sampling and in-house ATP monitoring for process control.
How did BMS CAT become involved with this project?
I received a call the evening of the crash asking me to get to NYC. We met the next day on the New Jersey side at a barge company where the plane was stored on a barge. We met with the airline, NTSB, and the FBI and agreed on our mutual plan of action. BMS and the FBI would enter the cabin first to photograph personal effects and carry-on luggage in the position they were located. Then the NTSB investigative team would board the plane to investigate the cause of the accident and to inspect for life safety issues. If they moved a piece of carry-on luggage, they were requested to place it back in the same location. Once they completed their work (a few hours), then the FBI and BMS removed the personal effects and carry-on luggage. Since this was not a criminal investigation, the FBI continued to participate in the personal effects and luggage removal process for internal training purposes.
We tagged all personal effects and carry-on luggage with the seat location. Then they were removed from the plane, weighed, and placed on a refrigerated trailer to be frozen. We do this jointly with the FBI witness. We then got the luggage out of the cargo hold and placed it in the refrigerated trailer. When everything was off of the plane, we were ready to transport to BMS CAT. We used armed ex-FBI agents to escort the truck nonstop to BMS CAT in Fort Worth, Texas. Only stops for fuel were allowed.
How do you identify who owns the various contents from a crash, and who is responsible for getting them back to the owners?
This is a key part of the process. From the beginning, we are concerned about who owns the personal effects. We want to recover personal effects and not break an association. In the main cabin, sometimes carry-on luggage has an outside name tag, or there is something inside the luggage to link the item to a passenger. That is why we photograph and record seat locations. If something was found in the aisle, we would note that. In the main cargo hold, the same applies to luggage tags. We hope they stay intact. That makes it easy to determine that all the contents inside the luggage belong to a particular person. However, we have found that the luggage tags the airlines apply to the bags start to fall off with moisture and cold temperatures. When that occurs, we have to inspect the baggage contents for identifying items.
Outside the plane on the ground or impacted into the soil, we simply notate where we found the personal effects. In these cases, without a name tag, we classify the personal effect as “unassociated.” This means we don’t know who it belongs to.
There are two processes to claim personal effects: associated and unassociated. We say “associated” because we believe the personal effect is associated with a particular person. When they visit the website, they view the associated items we believe to be theirs. They then check off what is theirs and what is not theirs. What is not theirs then is transferred to the unassociated group. After the associated process is completed, we allow all passengers to view the unassociated personal effects to claim items that are theirs or they believe to be their loved ones.
CHALLENGES IN AVIATION RESTORATION
What are the greatest challenges encountered when doing this type of restoration work?
The greatest challenges vary by the phase of work we are performing. [At the crash site], we can have immense pressure from a variety of federal agencies (foreign or United States) with competing priorities. Pressure is always on how fast we can get our work done at the crash site. There could be a runway closed and people out of their homes. However, we have to resist the temptation to speed things up at the cost of being thorough. There can be no doubt that absolutely nothing remains from the crash, regardless of how much time it takes. The federal law for the families takes precedence over all other issues. And, of course, there are the ever-present news agencies asking for interviews and trying to get photos.
[At the processing center], we have issues of decontamination, inventory control, communications with passengers, next of kin, attorneys, authorities, return of personal effects, and the news media.
Regarding inventory, we have developed our own web-based system. This allows multiple users to enter descriptions of the personal effects of the passengers complete with before and after photos. We have had up to 500,000 items from a crash.
For the claims process, we perform all communications to the families and/or their attorneys. For the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, I hired three interpreters to support Korean, Mandarin, and Cantonese speakers. Plus, we put on a night shift so that we could communicate with them in their time zones. For Tam Airlines in Brazil, I hired Brazilian Portuguese interpreters.
The Family Assistance Act requires that we make available the personal effects for the family to view. We introduced our secure web-based claims process a few years ago, and now we have 99.9 percent of our claims from the web. A family member simply logs in, views what is theirs, and in a few clicks, we have their claim. We then schedule delivery by our trained PE Care Team to the family or next of kin’s home. The web-based claim process has been revolutionary, and the families are grateful.
What was the most interesting project your team worked on?
Each project has some interesting memories. Certainly, the American Airlines flight that crashed right after 9/11 was high-profile, tense, and very sensitive. Then the TAM Airlines crash in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was Time magazine’s Disaster of the Year. There, I remember a tender moment with the widow of a victim of the crash. She did not have any remains to bury for her husband. So she wanted to visit the crash site, considering it her husband’s burial site. I arranged for a work stoppage for the designated time. We escorted her to a safe area for her to pray and look.
She then was ready to leave. She came over to me and gave me a Brazilian hug and kiss on each cheek. Through the interpreter, she said, “Thank you for coming to Brazil to help us. Thank you for letting me visit my husband. God bless you!” I teared up and couldn’t talk.
The TAM Airlines crash was also the most challenging for two reasons. First was dealing with the local and federal Brazilian authorities. I was in Brazil for six months. They had a negative experience with a competitor two years previous to this incident, and they were worried, but they eventually cooperated. The second was the plane crashed into a concrete building. We had to implode the building, then demolish it to rubble. We then hauled 1,100 dump truck loads of rubble to a rented giant warehouse and sifted the rubble for many months looking for personal effects and human remains. We found a lot!
How does it feel to restore items that belong to someone who was involved in a crash?
We are in the service business. This is truly one of the most gratifying things one can do. Our people truly feel it is a calling to be able to serve the families. We have families or next of kin that will call in and talk for 30 to 60 minutes. It becomes quite personal. We have had people that lost loved ones tell us that they don’t know how we can do what we do. When our teams deliver the personal effects to their homes, it is like family is visiting. It is obviously a traumatic time for the family, but our teams are trained in dealing with victims of mass fatalities. At times, it brings tears to our eyes.
What else should our readers know about this particular service area?
This is obviously a specialized niche business. However, it grew as an extension of our basic restoration business from cleaning fire damage contents in homes. Restoration contractors can take their basic skills and look for their own unique markets and/ or industries and adapt. Become problem solvers and provide value-added services, and watch the business grow! RIA