“I have never been exposed to anything like that in my life”
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Officers sent to recover the bodies of people who died during Hurricane Dorian in the days after it decimated Abaco and parts of Grand Bahama were met with horrific scenes of carnage, a court heard this week.
Sergeant Austin Bowles, a crime scene officer, testified on Tuesday in the ongoing coroner’s inquest into victims lost during the deadly Category 5 storm.
Bowles said a team of officers from the Crime Scene Unit was dispatched to devastated areas of Abaco on September 4, 2019 — three days after the storm hit — in a bid to retrieve victims’ dead bodies.
He said his team was there for a week and then placed on a rotation.
Bowles described gruesome scenes of the level of devastation and death met on the ground.
Among those unforgettable scenes was a church in Marsh Harbour where the walls collapsed and trapped several victims underneath.
Bowles said heavy-duty equipment had to be used to remove the wall from the bodies.
He said in Marsh Harbour they were shown several bodies — some obstructed by debris including walls, lamp and utility poles, lumber and large trailers, and some found in shallow water in still-partially-flooded areas.
He described bodies being found in residential areas and outside homes, and depicted how the body of an adolescent girl was found pinned beneath a utility pole and some lumber.
Bowles indicated some of the bodies were difficult to get to because the number of collapsed houses prevented travel by vehicle.
He said when the team traversed the Mudd shantytown — which was wiped out by the storm — there was an exceptional amount of debris and the team was concerned about their safety as opposed to moving their equipment through the rubble.
He said the body they found in that area had to be moved and transported to a “safer” place.
Bowles — who has been on the police force for 15 years and served as a crime scene officer for 10 — said it was a horrible experience and the worst thing he had ever seen in his life.
“I can say I have picked up as much bodies as there are days in the year, but I have never been exposed to anything like that in my life,” he said.
He added that the scenes of devastation on Abaco shown on television could not reflect the magnitude of the calamity.
“You couldn’t convey that on the TV screens. Anything you saw on TV was a drop in the bucket to what you actually saw when you got there”, Bowles said.
He noted that photographs were taken whenever the team visited an area and a body was found, and after the recovery efforts were called off, those photos were compiled onto a CD — which was submitted as an exhibit in the proceedings.
Bowles explained that photographs of tattoos and distinguishing features had to be taken as the faces of some victims were unrecognizable.
“A lot of the bodies were already in various stages of decomposition,” he told the court.
He also explained that as bodies were collected, officers wrote on the bags the date and general area they were recovered in.
They were then transported to a “makeshift morgue”, which was a cooler allocated for the bodies at the clinic, he said.
Officials have confirmed 74 recorded deaths from the storm, while the number of missing people continues to be disputed.
Witnesses for 34 people reported to police as having gone missing during the storm are testifying about the last time they saw their loved ones.
The matter has been adjourned until next week Wednesday at 2pm.