By JB BLOCKER
JB Blocker, a local writer and media consultant, has served as a Disaster Recovery Supervisor on several occasions across the USA. Based on his experience, he examines the Casey Anthony trial.
“That particular smell, whenever you smell it, is something you never forget. It’s a very distinct odor.” George Anthony, father of accused murderer Casey Anthony.
So many testified about ‘that smell’ in the Caylee Anthony murder case and yet many question those witnesses as they tell of how they recognized the smell of a decaying body. The tow truck driver detected the smell when he picked up Casey’s car and six previous incidents where he had picked up vehicles that had held decomposing bodies. He recognized that distinct scent.
And what about the cadaver dog? In multiple disasters the world has witnessed over the recent years, we have seen cadaver dogs used. They didn’t respond to rotting food, their highly trained and sensitive noses located decomposing bodies.
Could people actually recognize the smell of a dead human?
In the late ’70s, I tasted death twice. As a teenager I used to wander the streets of little Sunray in the northern Texas panhandle. During one summer I would race past this cozy red brick home of a retired gas worker who was nice enough and lived alone. The house was on a large corner lot that my friends would cut across as we raced home.
A particular rotting smell got our attention on a sweltering summer day. Day after day, my buddy Johnny Underwood and I would cut across that lawn. The faster we would race, the closer we would cut near the house. Of course, we knew everyone in a town with less than a square mile of residences so we thought nothing of it.
The odor was stronger everyday, and we never saw the old man around so we started snooping around thinking maybe something wasn’t right.
Within a few short days, the smell became a pervasive and sickening sweet odor that filled our mouths and gagged us. That’s when we told my father about it. And that’s when they discovered the body!
Two years later, I was visiting a friend from college near Tulia, Texas. Steve and I were on the track team at Lubbock Christian College. His father was a mortician who was called to recover two bodies found long dead in an old motel. I went along.
We put on rubber gloves, and I helped lift the body of the deceased man from the motel bed to the gurney. The body was blackened and swollen from only a few days in an unairconditioned room during the heat of a Texas August.
I lost it when the skin of the man’s ankles stuck to the rubber gloves. I felt like I needed to scrape my tongue to remove that same sickening sweet smell that had led to the discovery of my old neighbor. You could taste. I can taste it now.
Manhattan 2001, Ground Zero, the Red Zone
September 29th was my first day as a Disaster Recovery Supervisor assigned to damaged buildings in the Red Zone.
The Red Zone is the block which contained the fallen World Trade Center buildings.
I was housed near Grand Central Station and would take the subway down to Lower Manhattan every day. At first, the subways only ran down to the Canal Street exit near Chinatown,and we would have to walk the rest of the way. Every few weeks, more of the southern tracks would be opened, and my walk was shortened.
By November the Fulton Street exit opened and by December, the Wall Street exit finally began to operate. Give or take a few bomb and biological scares that would shut down the subway lines, I didn’t mind the subways. There was a whole new sense of courtesy and respect among the riders. Many were coming to fill the streets around the disaster with cameras and missing signs.
I was dressed with all the trappings of an explorer. Carrying masks, helmet, and specialized equipment while usually covered in dust. I was often offered a seat and thanked by all I passed by for working the Zone. I couldn’t buy a beer and had several meals compted or paid for by a patron. All the obvious workers were treated this way.
My previous trips to New York had left me apprehensive of taking the subway back when everyone ignored everyone else. One girl friend was always certain we would be mugged. Truth be known, she was just a paranoid soul.
Now I looked forward to the common courtesies that extended to human dignity. There was a solemn reverent appreciation of Americans coming together.
I remember the first time I stepped out of the subway stairway and up in to the stale air that surrounded the miles around Ground Zero. As my head reached street level, I could instantly smell the dusty smoky air. Fires would continue to burn for several more months from hidden reaches of the underground garages adding to the smoky cloud that seemed to blanket a few blocks for months.
As I walked toward the Red Zone, the air would become more complex. At first there was a mixture of Chinese food as I walked south past the west side of Chinatown. But as I got closer to Wall Street, odors took on body and shape. I learned to not breathe from my mouth. I wore a variety of mask when ever I could. My mind raced with thoughts of the pulverized concrete, the sheet rock, the furniture, the mementos, plants, photos, and other personal items that had filled the buildings that were now a pile of rubble.
I have always had a remarkable palate and am very analytical. It has served me well in the kitchen and as a Food Reviewer. Now I would curse my ability to taste and smell. I could not stop my mind from trying to distinguish the sources of those aromas.
With each step toward Ground Zero, I began to mentally analyze the scents that were growing heavier and more palpable. I passed rotting garbage that was piled along Broadway. That garbage wouldn’t be picked up for a while. Farther south, I was no longer smelling, I was tasting the weight and flavor of the air.
An occasional soft breeze would waft in from the Hudson River. Normally the smell of the Hudson is a dirty oily thing. Now, those breezes were welcomed cleansings.
A block before you reach the Red Zone, the air held a heavier taste. A familiar sweetness. A lingering weight on the tongue. A taste you couldn’t scrape off or brush away. How do you wash away a memory of death?
Every day, day after day I watched as bodies were solemnly carried past honor lines of firefighters and workers in the Zone as they were carried out of the pit that lead to the garage opening in the center of Ground Zero.
I took my breaks at the main Salvation Army supply tent located just east of what was once Building 5. At that tent there was always hot food, beverages, clothing, medical supplies, and endless coffee. When I was on the job, I avoided stepping in to the honor line that often formed just a few dozen feet away from the Salvation Army tent several times a day. But one time, a gathering line began to form and word was out that a pocket had been opened with a missing group from a fire station.
I was bandaging my bloody aching feet that were ravaged by new steel toed boots. They had taken me up and down the surrounding high rises as we investigated the damages. With no elevators yet in operation and blocks to walk just to get there, my feet were ruined by broken blisters within a few days and they didn’t recover for weeks.
The Salvation Army tent was where I cleaned and bandaged my feet a couple of times a day. I was off duty at the time and was ready to head to my hotel when the word of an honor line was forming. Usually, when a fire fighter is located, they would get word out. There were always off duty PD and FD hanging around waiting for word about a missing officer. Those who had missing squad brothers and sisters came every day.
On this occasion, I joined the honor line.
As more stretchers were carried in, bodies began to be carried out. They had been dead for a few weeks by then. Parts were slowly and reverently carried out of the pit and down the long line of workers and off duty officers. Half of a torso on one stretcher. A leg on another. Broken bodies. A fireman’s helmet over a blanket. Other uniform parts. Dozen of stretchers carrying heroes and loved ones.
For more than two hours the honor line remained amid weeping and sobbing of grown men who were there operating cranes and bulldozers. Iron workers, drivers, heavy equipment operators, Fire, Police, National Guard, FEMA, all moved around the restricted zone day and night. They were all filling in to that growing line of workers and officers who were praying and saluting as the bodies passed by often in pieces. As word spread of the missing station, more and more fire fighters joined the procession until police had to intervene.
As stretcher after stretcher passed by, I fought off the gagging cloying scent that filled your mouth like peanut butter would. That smell I had experienced as a teenage was unmistakable. Unforgettable, Unforgiving.
Tic Tacs and Altoids
I tried chewing gum. I tried Tic Tacs. I filled my pockets with Altoids. I carried a tube of Mentholatum.
Every day, as soon as I would reach the ground level out of the subway, I put some strong potent mint in my mouth to avoid that smell. That taste!
But on that one day, as a fellow human in that long line of death, I didn’t even have s stick of gum. I tasted the death. It is not a scent when it gets to that stage. And it lingers for ever.
I am certain that all those witnesses in the Caylee Anthony murder trial knew immediately what they were experiencing. The decay of a human being has its own signature, and it lingers like a bad memory. I hope you never have to bear that experience.
– J.B. Blocker is a media consultant based in Historic Downtown McKinney, Texas. Phone: 469-334-9962. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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