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TITLE. This is a story about a young man, Johnny Butler, and his journey from his
home to the University of Rural Alabama (TURA) as in “Toora, Loora, Loora.” (John
THE GREAT STATE. It is April 24, and this is the Great State of Alabama and the pre-
Civil War county of Cotton. Being an old county, Cotton County is located in the rural
Black Belt of Alabama, the old cotton producing region. By nature, Cotton County is
rural – very rural. There aren’t that many people here – except during the school year
when the population is swelled by the enrollment of the University of Rural Alabama, a
former State Teacher’s College, founded somewhere in the distant past by Miss Julia
Tutwiler and funded by Governor Bibb Graves.
This is the Coroner. This is the Coroner of Cotton County, Quincy Seben, III. He is
the owner and operator of Loving Care Brown Service Funeral Home. As Coroner, he
has a budget of $7,000 per year and a staff of two, counting himself and his Wife,
Sammie. He doesn’t know it, but he’s about to be overwhelmed.
I WORK HERE. "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events
that alter and illuminate our times... all things are as they were then, except - you are
there.” That’s where I come in. I work here . . . I carry a badge … I’m the FAC
Director. My life, too, is about to get in the words of the Chinese proverb,
Now, this is Johnny Butler. Now, this is Johnny Butler, a bright kid from Crenshaw
County, Alabama. He’s a whiz at math and science, the kind of kid that has a real
future. He can go anywhere he wants to go, so his teachers tell him. He’s from the
grand ole Butler family, a family that came to Alabama, via Charleston, S.C. in the
1700s from Ireland. In Ireland, the Lord Butler was the Chancellor to the King.
Perhaps one day, Johnny will be the Chancellor of a great university . . . Perhaps not.
Johnny’s been selected from all the other kids in Crenshaw County to compete in
the State Science Fair at the University of Rural Alabama. He’s excited to go. On April
24, his parents proudly leave Crenshaw County to take him and to drop him and his
project display off at the gym. He’ll spend several days living in the dorm as the
TURA students are on spring break and in showing his project in the great hall of the
gym with all the other bright students from the rest of Alabama. This is the proudest
day his family has seen – that will change.
Saving Johnny Butler:
The Role of the SMORT and Family Assistance Center
In Mass Casualty Events
(And How You Can Help!)
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TURA CAMPUS. Now, this is the University of Rural Alabama, the home of the
“Fighting Okra,” the defending NAIA basketball champions. Their gym is a showplace
for a college of this size. They’ve put a lot of money into it so it will look special. Of
course, with tight budgets, some cuts had to be made here and there – in this case,
some of the cross-members in the ceiling and roof were substituted with lesser-grade
materials. Nobody will see them and since there’s no snow in Rural Alabama, the roof
doesn’t have to withstand all that much weight any way.
As we later learn, some of the wall material turned out not to be quite as flame-
retardant as advertised. . . Oh, and the water for the showers is heated by natural
gas. . . These will turn out to be fateful decisions.
April 25. Here, you see all the science projects proudly displayed in the gym –
hundreds of them, presented by hundreds of kids – black and white, Asian and Latino.
“Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks. Tough kids, sissy kids. Even kids with
chicken pox.” All to be viewed and judged by a blue ribbon panel of scientists
including one Nobel Laureate, Dr. David J. Wineland of the National Bureau of
Standards in Boulder, Colorado. This trip will be an eventful one for Dr. Wineland.
Here , we see a group shot of but a few of the students – all bright, all promising,
all have miles and miles of future ahead of them – or do they?
And, Johnny Butler is in the middle of it all, a handsome, winsome, articulate
young man who’d make a great physicist some day. He’s particularly interested in
showing his project, ironically, “The Physics of the Wind,” to the famous Dr. Wineland.
It is now April 26, and some problems begin. A Cold front has begun moving in
from Northwestern Arkansas and a Warm Front up from South Louisiana. There may
be a bit of “weather.” There is some consideration concerning cancelling the rest of
the conference, but the logistics of it all will not permit that, so, school authorities
agree to go on with the Fair. The day is spent in final preparation for the judging on
the next day.
Johnny is honored to have dinner that night with Dr. Wineland and they do discuss
physics and wind. Johnny is excited beyond belief and Dr. Wineland is more than
impressed with the young man. However, in the night, problems really begin to ensue
– there will be blood.
DISASTER! April 27 dawns with clouds overhead and high aloft – ominous clouds,
foreboding clouds, the kind of clouds you know are up to no good. It’s a hot and sticky
day for April, even in Rural Alabama. The humidity is very high and the air has a
strangely electric feel to it.
The kids are all gathered in the gym, hundreds of them with their projects set up
on the floor. They are all spit and polished and ready to be judged. Everyone just
knows that he or she is a winner. Dr. Wineland is the Chief Project Investigator. He
begins to lead his team of judges as they methodically observe each project and
question the students about the projects. The school caretaker, Harlan Regis, gets
concerned even though the students are completely unaware that outside, the sky
goes from blue to hazy, to gray, to charcoal, to black – to green.
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Like the proverbial freight-train an horrific EF-5 tornado bears down on the
campus. It has the school in its cross-hairs. Before the kids can say OMG, the gym
becomes a bulls-eye: windows blow out, doors suck in, seats come un-moored – and
then that terrible crack as the roof-span gives way dropping every bit of its one ton for
each 80 square feet of concrete on the once-prized parquet floor smashing beautiful
science projects and sandwiching once-innocent children.
FIRE. The falling roof crashes through the floor and ruptures the gas main, the pilot
light from the hot water heaters ignites the surging gas and the rubble, still blowing up
billows of concrete and sheetrock dust, becomes one giant ignition chamber and the
gym explodes sending some bricks all the way across the campus. The explosion is
immediately followed by a flash fire that mushrooms as though it were a bomb.
In 20 seconds, it’s all over. The “Mother of All Alabama Tornadoes” moves on to
wreak more havoc on Cotton County and then lift back to the clouds which bore it on
“buzzard’s wings.” However, the all-consuming fire continues to burn unabated until it
self-consumes in minutes. What can survive this inferno?
RESCUE. Miraculously, some do. One such is Dr. Wineland who is found wandering,
covered with dust and ash completely dazed. He has somehow survived and has,
himself, dragged clear a number of now-nameless children, some still alive – some
not. Asked to come back later to TUNA to receive an award for his meritorious
service, he declines, never able to see such a sight again. After this event, he will
retire to his farm in Wyoming.
Casualties. Later, much later, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, the
scoreboard which once counted free-throws, dunks and bank-shots, now counts
casualties -Sixty-Seven Dead . . . One hundred Eighty-Five Injured – men, women
RESPONSE. They say that every disaster is first local, and I guess that’s true, but this
one rapidly turns into a state and national event. First on the scene are the local
police followed by every member of the volunteer fire department. Officer Bill Gannon
is first to grasp the magnitude of this calamity and, remembering his ICS training,
immediately assumes the role of Incident Commander, a role he soon surrenders to
Fire Chief, Stephen "Bull" McCaffrey.
Cotton County EMA, which was monitoring the gathering tornadic event on
weather radios, is notified by Incident Command that great numbers of fire-rescue
personnel are going to be needed ASAP, PDQ, instanter, stat, rattle-dags. As EMA
calls out rescue personnel from nearby fire departments and rescue squads;
Likewise, EMA has calls, through the Regional Law Enforcement Taskforce for every
police officer available in the county to establish a perimeter. Fire squads extinguish
the remaining blaze that soon burns out when the gas company closes off the gas
The building must first cool before rescuers can take the time to cut through the
rubble of smoldering, crumbled concrete and steel to find survivors.
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Volunteers begin to arrive and assist (some, of course, injuring themselves.)
Ambulances requested through EMA, draw near and start taking away those who can
Some can – but many can’t. They will first head for the nearby County General
Hospital, a 25-bed primary care hospital that notifies ADPH to activate AIMS to take
Various hospitals in the State come on-line and notify the State Trauma System
and AIMS that they can receive incoming. The Trauma System guides EMS personnel
with casualties to some-distant hospitals. At the end of days, the scene of what can
best be described as a ”Skyfall” witnesses a veritable “alphabet-soup” of agencies
summoned to perform their various tasks.
SMORT. One such agency carries the designation State Mortuary Operational
Response Team, SMORT. Remember Coroner Quincy? There is no possible way that
he, the local coroner, can begin to even locate and identify the decedents, let alone
prepare them for release to their soon-to-be grieving families. Thus, a volunteer
organization which started with funeral home directors and other mortuary personnel
is alerted by EMA – SMORT formed by funeral directors and personnel just a time
such as this.
Quincy is acquainted with SMORT through his training with the Coroners’
Association. He remembers that SMORT is composed of funeral directors, funeral
employees, coroners, other trained personnel, as well as administrative support staff,
and security personnel; And it has a number of responsibilities under the direction of
the Coroner whom they assist. These responsibilities include:
•provision of temporary morgue facilities
• victim identification,
•Decedent processing and preparation for disposition of remains to funeral
home directors at the request of families.
SMORT has available to it personnel that can provide additional services such as
forensic dental pathology and forensic anthropology to aid in identification of remains.
It works closely, He learns, with the Funeral Home Director’s Association, Alabama
Board of Funeral Service, the Alabama Department of Forensic Science and ADPH as
well as with local coroners/medical examiners.
SMORT is patterned after the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response
Team (DMORT), which is administered since 2007 by HHS, National Disaster Medical
System (NDMS.) Like DMORT, SMORT has a two-part process that utilizes a
sophisticated computer program for matching physical characteristics. If necessary,
the families of the decedents provide as much information about their loved one as
possible: medical or dental records, X-rays, fingerprints, photos or descriptions of
tattoos, clothing and jewelry; blood type information and objects that may contain the
decedents’ DNA, such as hair or a toothbrush.
SMORT provides or procures hot/cold running water, electricity, HVAC, adequate
and secure drainage, parking, communications, and security. An ideal temporary
morgue established within a building would need 5000-8000 ft2.
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The information gathered, called antemortem, or "before death" information, is
entered into a computer program called VIP (Victim Identification Profile), which is
capable of assimilating 800 different item categories, including graphics, photographs
and x-rays. As forensic scientists (pathologists, anthropologists, odontologists)
examine the recovered remains, they enter their findings - called postmortem data—
Coroner Quincy is aware that this mass casualty event could be determined to be
of national importance or might exceed the capacity of even SMORT. That being the
case, DMORT could be activated to assist, by HHS at the request of ADPH or through
AEMA through EMAC, Interstate Mutual Aid overseen by FEMA.
SMORT ADMIN. Coroner Quincy knows that SMORT is administered by the Cullman
County EMA where Phyllis Little is the Director and Kelly Allen is her Deputy. Doug
Williams, a funeral director in Cullman is the statewide SMORT Commander. It utilizes
only volunteers, but receives certain funding through ADPH from ASPR. Tim Hatch
oversees the grant.
SMORT has 50 personnel divided into 5 regional teams of ten persons. It has five
large inflatable tents, three mobile units and three refrigerated trucks. All will be
needed at this scene.
“Funeral home.” That has an ominous ring to it doesn’t it. Yet, funeral homes in the
State of Alabama are about to be busy. Sixty-seven Alabama children and adults are
lost is less than one minute.
ONE THE WAY. One such student is Johnny Butler, lost in the melee’. Like hundreds
of other families, the worried Butler family hears the news and drive quickly to the
scene, clogging the highway. And like all loved ones, they want to find out whether
their son is alive . . . or not. Only time and work, a lot of work, will tell.
VIC. When the Butlers arrive at the scene, they find a policeman and tell him who
they are and ask if there is any information on Johnny Butler. The Red Cross, called
by EMA and in coordination with a branch of SMORT called the Family Assistance
Center or FAC, has established a temporary place for families and friends to go. This
is the Victim Information Center (VIC.) At the VIC, which has been hastily located at
the municipal auditorium; the family finds many other worried and concerned families,
some food, some organization and what little information there is.
The municipal auditorium is close to the scene, perhaps too close. Bearing that in
mind, EMA, in coordination with the FAC, establish a Center, the Family Assistance
Center, at New Bethlehem, a local United Methodist church which is on the other side
of town and unharmed by the monster-storm.
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FAC. FAC staff are trained to activate quickly the Center following the event as they
have here. Over the next few days, they will provide critical and secondary services to
the 5 to 7 expected family members of each of the victims. The FAC will partner with a
number of sister agencies and will at all times maintain a high degree of sensitivity
and respect for both the family and the lost loved one. Perhaps most importantly, the
FAC will provide a place of security and serenity away from the prying eyes of the
media and the gawkers. None such will be allowed in FAC at any time, not on my
watch any way.
In the end, the FAC will be the families’ life-line to information as it becomes available,
to sanity, and will begin to build the bridge to coping with what is to come.
FAC SERVICES. Staff of the FAC will assist SMORT in identifying victims through
conducting antemortem interviews, will provide comfort and assistance to families,
and will refer family members for spiritual or psychological counseling, medical
assistance, and material needs.
FAC STAFF. The SMORT staff consists of the County Coroner/Medical Examiner who
is the Incident Commander, the SMORT Commander, the FAC Executive Director
(FACED) and Deputy Director, the Chief of Professional Personnel (ChoPPs,) Family
Assistance Representatives (FARs), the Chief of Operations (Ops,) Antemortem
Interviewers (AMIs,) Antemortem Data Entry Personnel (ADEP,) Administrative Staff
(Admin,) and the Chief of Logistics (CoLog).
FACES OF THE FAC. At the FAC, families will see these faces: Doug Williams, the
SMORT Commander; Debbie Gaddy, R.N., the Deputy FAC Director; Dr. Bill Morgan,
the Autauga County Baptist Director of Associational Missions and Chief of
Professional Personnel; and your FAC Director. Dr. Morgan supervises the Family
Assistance Representatives, Ruth Harrell, RN, MPH, Chief of Ops supervises the
Antemortem Data Interviewers and the Chief of Logistics who will be FAC’s answer to
MSgt. Bilko, the scrounger who can procure it . . . Just don’t ask him how or where he
We are currently actively recruiting a CoLog as well as FARs, AMIs and Admins.
Our goal in recruitment is to fill out the table of organization and equipment (TO&E)
with a racially and culturally diverse team that includes people of different faiths,
genders and disciplines who are best suited for their particular assignment.
Optimal FAC (Only) Setup Exclusive of ADFS Facilities. In this event, New
Bethlehem was transformed into the FAC with a number of service areas, all designed
to accomplish its two major goals, taking care of the families and assisting SMORT to
identify decedents so that ultimately, there can take place the sad reunion as the
families are assisted in taking their loved one to their own funeral home.
The service areas include a reception/screening checkpoint; a waiting area; a
large family briefing room; a place for victim identification services and data
entry/computer operations; and general operations, childcare, staff break, and family
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Just who is a “family?” Just who is a “family?” The working definition of victim and
family groups is broad in scope. The Red Cross, National Transportation Safety Board
and the military all define “family” as anyone that the primary victim’s family
considered to be a family member. If other words, if they say they are “family,” we
won’t question that. Of course, in a disaster of this magnitude, there might have to be
limits placed on the size of these “families.”
Whoever self-define as “family,” as in this case, they will or may present
desperately seeking information, physical and emotional comfort, hydration, meals,
and protection from media. In fact, though great emotion is not always immediately
present in families, the Butler family appeared dazed or numb. We know that each of
them will gradually go through stages of denial, hope, and then grief and despair. Our
job is simply to be there with them and for them.
At the TURA disaster, we, the FAC staff find some family members to have
irrational beliefs regarding the survival of their loved ones in face of certain death,
which is common and not abnormal in early stages of the event. We even have a few
individuals, none of the Butler family, though, who experience stress-induced physical
or behavioral symptoms of such severity that we have to refer them to other providers
for urgent and immediate care.
We learned through this that acute stress symptoms such as confusion, the
presence of intrusive memories, increased anxiety and a sense of disbelief will be
present even in some of those who directly experienced or witnessed the incident.
CARING FOR FAMILIES. At New Bethlehem, each family had assigned to them a
Family Assistance Representative (FAR) who served as their guide on this perilous
and sad journey. Like all FARs, the Butler Family FAR, Miss Henrietta Mears,
ministered to their needs, helped them procure things they needed and generally
served as their “next friend.” The FARs exuded a sense of safety, calm, efficiency,
community, and connectedness to social support. Above all, they provided the Butlers
and the hundreds of others like them with hope. Where there is no hope, there is only
despair. No one should despair in the FAC.
FAC PARTNERS. The Butler Family has material needs as well as emotional needs.
Miss Mears and the FARs through FAC have many resources upon whom to call
should the need arise. EMA is the gateway, but people services are provided by Red
Cross, Salvation Army, denominational disaster ministries, especially for Alabama’s
FAC, The Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief Ministry consisting of Chaplaincy, child
care, and food service (food supplied either by Red Cross of Salvation Army.) The
Baptists even provide temporary shower units and self-contained clothes washing
Most faiths and denominations have on-call clergy who can give spiritual counseling.
EMA can provide mental health/social worker counseling if need be. All these
resources and more are available to the families through the FAC. And, it’s the FAR’s
job to see that they are connected.
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MENTAL, HEALTH OR SPIRITUAL INTERVENTIONS. If the FAR refers a family
member for mental health counseling through EMA/Red Cross, they may need
psychological first aid - comfort care over and above what our FARs have been
trained to give. A family member could also need crisis intervention support to provide
opportunities for family members to make decisions to regain control of their lives,
psychological education on stress symptoms and coping as well as casualty support
such as connecting with support systems, decision-making on disposition of remains
or spiritual care interventions by Disaster Chaplains or local clergy of the appropriate
IDENTIFICATION OF REMAINS. The second, perhaps toughest, task facing the
Butler family will be assisting SMORT through FAC in identifying remains. In this
event, we have already witnessed search and recovery of remains and an
assessment by Coroner Quincy of the condition of the remains.
IDENTIFICATION OF REMAINS. Some will be easy to identify, some will not. You
know, but the Butler Family does not know, that what has already begun is the
identification process. In this process, forensic experts, if necessary, will assess the
length of time it might take to make a positive ID and what methods (esp. DNA) will be
IDENTIFICATION OF REMAINS. Certainly, involved in the process is antemortem
data collection involving the making of decisions about the release of remains to the
family and receiving information on identification of common/unidentified corporeal
fragments. Likewise, the Coroner is already working with due deliberate speed to
determine an exact cause or manner of death for each decedent that has been
EVERY DECEDENT IS A PERSON. Though Coroner Quincy, SMORT and the FAC
may work through the case of a number of decedents, we will never forget that each
one is a person and will accord them the dignity they deserve.
THE ANTEMORTEM INTERVIEW. After the Butler Family became comfortable with
their FAR, Henrietta Mears, also a member of the Alabama Baptist Disaster Response
Mission, they met with an FAC Staffer, Mr. Richard Cavett, an Antemortem Data
Interviewer (AMI) who led them through the delicate process of obtaining data that
helped SMORT, Coroner Quincy and the ADFS Staff identify a young man who was
finally and sadly determined to be Johnny Butler.
Miss Mears walked with them throughout this process. While AMIs move from family
to family gathering information, FARs stay with their family to assist until relieved. This
process is designed to allow the family to tell the staff their story in a comfortable
manner. While, follow-up direct questions are asked according to a script which
ultimately correlates with the ADFS’ form “VIP,” the bulk of the interview will be the
family members’ narrative.
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DATA ENTRY. Behind the scenes at the FAC and out of view of the grieving families,
the antemortem data which has been collected by AMIs such as Mr. Cavett is entered
into a data collection system set up and installed in the FAC by the IT staff of ADFS.
This information is uploaded to the ADFS HQ in Montgomery where the antemortem
data is matched with the post-mortem data. The goal is to create a putative match.
While ADFS suggests the match, Coroner makes the final call since this is his County
and his responsibility.
The system allows the FAC Ops to query the system periodically for reports on
putative matches so that Coroner Quincy can be constantly informed as to the status
of remains since he must report to the public, the press and most importantly to the
families on the status of identification of victims.
Data released outside a family is general in nature. Only the data that pertains to a
particular family is released to the family. General informational sessions are held in
the FAC as need when facts become available. What only family knows, every family
knows, except as it pertains to an identified decedent
BEGINNING TO WRAP UP. It is now April 30. The victims are identified and Coroner
Quincy makes his rounds notifying each individual family privately. Such is the case
with the Butler Family as Coroner Quincy, assisted by the FAC Director and the
Family FAR, Miss Mears, notifies them of the truth of what they already knew –
Johnny was one of the fatalities.
If one can find good news in this, it’s that Johnny is intact and ready to be
delivered to his family for burial. There will be many wreaths on the doors of Alabama
SAYING. GOODBYE. Henrietta Mears and the Staff of the FAC begin to bid good-bye
to the families as they have completed the exigent portion of the mission, that being
taking care of families and reuniting them with their loved one. They have assisted the
Butlers with making arrangements with Turner Funeral Home in Luverne to take
Johnny, to make final preparations and to lay him to rest. This scene, too, is
rehearsed over and over again. However, their job is not over.
SAVING JOHNNY BUTLER. Johnny Butler was one of 67 victims of that end of days
at the University of Rural Alabama, but he was one. To his family, while they regretted
the loss of the other 67, they grieved and grieve the loss of the one. It is said that “the
loss of a loved one turns our life upside down. Our world as we knew it has changed
and those changes require that we in turn adjust to a new ‘normal.’”
Perhaps it is also true that one who lives in memory is never really “lost,” but is
forever “saved.” That’s the Mission of SMORT/FAC; Though many are “lost,” all are
saved. It was a great honor to have had a small part in saving Johnny Butler.
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WHAT DID WE LEARN AT THE FAC? What did we learn today? We learned that
victims’ families must be identified quickly and given access to information and
services that are victim sensitive and easily accessible. We learned that there is a
strong need for continuous flow of information delivered through regularly scheduled
family briefings and a pro active approach to family issues and requests. We learned
that consistent and equitable support to all victim family groups is a challenge, but it is
Finally, we learned that the FAC, the “One stop” support center approach, was
efficient, provided a safe haven for families, and helped facilitate the victim
Does this sound like a mission you feel called to accept, a challenge you’d like to
take, a set of memories you’d like to create . . . and share, then . . .
The FAC wants you! The FAC wants you! You can be a volunteer; I know you can do
it. Heck, if I can run the thing then anybody ought to be able just to take a part in it.
To quote the great philosopher, “Snoop Dog,” “here’s how you order. . .”
VOLUNTEER REGISTRATION. Just follow the directions. . . One more thing . . .
FOR A COPY OF THE PRESENTATION AND TEXT, See “FAC Presentation,” a
download on Slideshare 7 <slideshare.net> See also on Facebook.