FAA lab analyzes victims of crashes, pieces together final moments

Monday, February 7th 2005, 6:13 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) A smattering of alcohol, a tinge of an antihistamine or the presence of a heart medication are all discernible by chemists at the Federal Aviation Administration's research lab through the examination of tissues and fluids from transportation accidents.

The Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory at the FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute does all the testing for crashes the FAA investigates across the country. It also provides forensic testing for boat, rail or other transportation accidents the National Transportation Safety Board investigates.

Chemists at the lab run tests for illegal drugs, over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs, said Dennis Canfield, manager of the laboratory and former senior forensic chemist with the New Jersey state crime lab.

In a complex of buildings tucked away among airplane hangars and aviation training centers on Oklahoma City's southwest side, tissues, blood or urine taken from pilots or passengers killed in crashes across the country are examined down to the details of their molecular makeup to try to determine what happened in the final moments of a person's life.

``Each of these bags represents a person,'' said James Sershon, a laboratory employee who catalogs the specimens when they are received in chilled boxes from investigators in the field.

The shelves of a room-size walk-in freezer in Sershon's lab are filled with black plastic bags, each tied closed and affixed with a manilla tag that lists the specimen's identity.

The laboratory receives about three samples a week from fatal accidents from across the country, said Canfield. The military doesn't submit samples because it investigates its own crashes. Specimens from accidents believed to be criminal are tested by the FBI's forensic laboratory.

Blood tests at the lab can determine if a pilot and his passengers died of carbon monoxide poisoning from an exhaust leak, or if the plane caught fire before a crash landing.

In some cases, tests at the lab have uncovered drugs that were not known before. In a machine that breaks down specimens into minute molecules, research chemists are able to reconstruct what type of drug is found in a person's body.

This is particularly useful in discovering if pilots had a physical ailment that they did not report during their FAA-mandated physicals. In one instance, Canfield says a pilot was being treated for seizures and had not reported his condition to aviation authorities.

That pilot crashed his airplane into a mountain in New York on a clear day. Chemists and researchers who analyzed his specimens believe the pilot was having a seizure at the time of the crash.

In another case, Canfield and his staff were able to isolate and identify a new compound that was the combination of pseudoephedrine and embalming fluid.

``It formed a new compound that had never been reported in the literature,'' Canfield said. ``The molecules were modified and made it look like something else.''

Scientist first thought the victim had been taking come kind of designer drug, after further analysis they came to the conclusion that the man had been embalmed before the specimen was taken.

While the discovery was not particularly noteworthy, it did show the variables that are involved in trying to piece together how a person died and what their final moments were like.

Chemists at the laboratory have also run tests on a spate of notable people killed in plane crashes.

Since the lab opened in 1991, it has run tests on the tissues of country singer John Denver, John Kennedy Jr., and Sen. H. John Heinz III, as well as other notable pilots killed in crashes. The lab was opened after the FAA realized it needed a research facility in the late 1980s.

Information from the tests helped investigators determine whether Capt. William Joe Dedmon was being treated for a heart condition. The NTSB said in its final report that Dedmon's abnormal heart rhythm caused him to loose consciousness moments before the boat he was driving hit a support beam of the Interstate 40 bridge, causing it to collapse. The 2002 bridge collapse killed 14 people.

``We don't draw the conclusions,'' Canfield said. ``We just supply the information, that may help investigators determine the cause of an accident. We are simply gathering facts.''