Counting the Dead: Joplin’s Coroner Explains

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

An aerial view shows Plaza Towers Elementary school in Moore, Okla., Tuesday, May 21, 2013 as rescue workers make their way through the structure.

As with all natural disasters, the immediate aftermath of the massive tornado that tore through Moore, Oklahoma Monday afternoon was filled with confusion and chaos. That confusion was on stark display Tuesday morning when officials suddenly lowered the death toll by more than half, from 51 people to 24, including nine children.

Amy Elliot, spokeswoman for the state medical examiner’s office, explained the discrepancy by saying she believed some victims had mistakenly been counted twice early on the scene in the Oklahoma City suburb of 41,000 people. But, she cautioned, the number could still climb as officials sift through debris. As of 6 p.m. on Tuesday the Moore County fire chief said he was “98% sure” there were no additional bodies or survivors to be pulled from the rubble.

(PHOTOS: Tornado Flattens Oklahoma City Suburb, Kills Dozens)

To get a sense of the enormous challenge officials face in trying to get an accurate body count in the wake of a disaster like Moore, TIME spoke to Rob Chappel, coroner for Jasper County, Missouri, who was charged with counting the dead from the May 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri that killed 161 people.

About an hour after the storm, Chappel said he made his way into the Joplin’s emergency operations center, located in the basement of city hall. “I said, ‘Do you guys need me? They said be prepared to stay—you’re not going anywhere. That’s when I knew,” he said. “We’ve had several tornadoes and you just never think it’s going to be you that’s dealing with the ‘big one’.”

The first thing Chappel did was find an area where they could accumulate bodies as they came in. His normal facility is only set up to handle about 20 or 30 people at any one time, 50 if he really crowds the bodies. “I was in a fog haze, but I just told myself to take things one step at a time, moment by moment,” he said. He was most concerned with getting the bodies cooled as fast as possible, so he’d be able to examine them before decomposition set in. The town brought in some refrigerator semi trucks to help Chappel do his work. Then he began examining and processing the bodies. “It’s important to make sure the cause of death is consistent with a tornado, rather than someone taking this opportunity to off their ex-wife.”

(MORE: The Oklahoma Mega-Twister Is More Weather Than Climate Change)

Chappel made sure he was the only person responsible for giving information to the officials at city hall, who would then relay it to the media. “I was very reserved about giving numbers out,” he said. “Any number I put out I wanted to physically have seen the body.” He said errors in the reporting of death tolls most often result from either having too many people involved in the process or if “the bodies are so mangled that they had large portions of bodies—two separate pieces—that get counted twice.”

Chappel says he thinks he released an initial count the next morning. “When they stopped the search and recoveries my count was laying right in front of me,” he said. “We had the initial count right in front of us, but I knew it wasn’t the final count.” The death toll wasn’t final for a month or two, he said. Over the weeks, he continued to get reports from families who said their loved one had died in the tornado, or as the result of their injuries or stress (which was especially common in elderly victims). “They wanted them to be counted,” he said. “‘I want my loved one to matter,’ they would say.”  One case he remembers was that of a young woman who died during the storm, but his investigation found she died of an overdose. Ultimately, Chappel had to make a judgment call, whether he should attribute each death to the tornado or not, in order to make the final tally.

Even with such a careful, meticulous work, he still made a mistake. The original final death toll was revised down by one person after that person was found alive elsewhere. Even stranger, that person had never lived in Joplin and wasn’t there during the storm. For some reason he was in the hospital death records. “It’s my fault—I don’t know how it happened,” Chappel said. “Nothing is perfect—human error is bound to happen.”

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