Experience in morgue at Ground Zero leads to stronger faith for forensics expert

Experience in morgue at Ground Zero leads to stronger faith for forensics expert

Arthur Bohanan's hands have held the sad remains of hundreds lost in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He pulled them from body bags and identified as many as he could through fingerprints, dental records, and DNA tests.

Ten years later, the hands that helped give peace and finality to grieving families are repairing the windows at McCampbell United Methodist Church. They're painting the walls of an old coal room and building shelves for a new food pantry.

He's preparing spaghetti and hamburgers for a new young adult group and welcoming them into his home.

"He's a very hands-on person," says Pastor Sherri Franklin. "He will do anything I want him to."

"I want to see the church grow," explains the 67-year-old grandfather. "In 10 or 15 years I'll be gone, but the church will still be here."

Arthur Bohanan is a retired forensics examiner with the Knoxville Police Department, but he is known for his science well beyond east Tennessee.

He's a fingerprint expert who teaches and speaks all over the country. He's on countless teams and task forces to help identify the dead and investigate missing children. Bohanan has been immortalized by novelist Patricia Cornwell as well as in books by his fellow forensics expert and friend, William Bass.

"When I started fingerprinting, 'forensics' wasn't even a word," says Bohanan, the son of a Baptist preacher.

He was newly retired, returning from a trip to Maine with his wife, when he got a call from his brother on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Dangerous work

As a member of the nation's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), Bohanan had made a visit to the World Trade Center just three years prior. When he heard that two planes had crashed into the twin towers, he knew he would soon be New York bound.

"DMORT was activated that afternoon by presidential order," he says.

On Sept. 12 at 4:30 a.m., Bohanan and six others from Tennessee departed for New York. (See photo.) He and another Tennessean, Lt. Steve Tinder, each were assigned to head the two morgues assembled under tents at Ground Zero.

For eight weeks, Bohanan and his colleagues tried to match body parts with identification. It was a colossal job that could never be complete and still makes the seasoned investigator emotional.

"So many fellow officers died ... They were just trying to help somebody else," he says. "We worked as a team and cried as a team. The tension of what we went through just wears you out ... Every day there was a new twist."

Bohanan has worked at many gruesome sites, including the Korean Airlines crash in Guam in 1997, the Discovery Shuttle in Texas in 2003, and Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.

"This was different, because people did this," he says, referring to the terrorists behind the 2001 massacre in New York and Washington, D.C.

More than 2,700 died in the towers. Only 60 percent could be forensically identified, according to the New York City Medical Examiner.

Adding to the trauma, Bohanan says he and co-workers were exposed to dangerous substances. Two weeks after he arrived in New York, Bohanan developed a serious sinus infection and had to go home for two weeks before returning north. Today he suffers from esophageal and pulmonary diseases associated with many 9/11 onsite workers.

"See that chalky stuff? See that chalky stuff? We were breathing that," Bohanan says several times, as he shows PowerPoint scenes of the city after the towers fell.

"Some of it was chemicals, some of it was glass. We basically were breathing anthrax," he says. The authorities tested the environment, deeming it to be "bad, but not that bad. Go ahead and work in it," they said.

"We trusted them," Bohanan says, even though "the soles of our shoes were dissolving."

Older, more focused

Pastor Sherri Franklin has all the books that her parishioner appears in, including Cornwell's "The Body Farm," where his fictitious name is "Dr. Thomas Katz."

"He's such an asset to our church and community," Franklin says, naming off more of her church member's commitments and accomplishments.

Besides being a fixer-upper and a trustee for his Morristown District church, Bohanan is a founder of the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center for Sevier, Cocke, Grainger, and Jefferson Counties. He's active both nationally and regionally in the Amber Alert Program and has trained his pastor and other regional leaders for a recently organized child abduction response team.

Bohanan came to McCampbell United Methodist Church, where his father-in-law was a member, in 2000. He grew up in Sevierville and in Baptist churches but now calls the United Methodist Church and New Market his home. (See photo.)

He admits his faith has grown stronger and more meaningful since 2001 and since he lost his 28-year-old son in a traffic accident in 2004.

"I guess I got older and more focused," he says, resting on a pew after repairing a leaky church window. "If I can be of help to somebody, that's what I'm here for."

Bohanan may soon be using his unique stories to help share the Gospel, since he recently earned his lay speaker certification and says he's anxious to get more involved in the church. He attended the Holston Annual Conference in June and "Calling All Men" in August for the first time.

He asks his pastor a lot of questions about disaster response and church leadership, which couldn't make her happier.

"I'm so honored to be here and so honored to serve," Bohanan says. "All of us need help, and we need to show each other our love."

On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Arthur Bohanan plans to sit on his porch in a rocking chair, looking out at the Tennessee mountains.