FGCU professor remembers investigating remains of ground zero
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney spends her career as a forensic anthropologist piecing together puzzles, identifying the dead, who they were, how they lived and how they died.
“What I do is basically piece together the 206 bones of an adult to read their story, and hopefully, what I’m reading that is grounded in science matches how that person saw themselves and how their immediate neighbors and family saw them,” Walsh-Haney explained.
Many times, Walsh-Haney has responded in the aftermath of disasters to start picking up the pieces to find answers.
She did it after the 1996 ValuJet crash, when a plane plummeted into the Everglades.
She did it decades after the 1921 Tulsa massacre.
And she did it after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
“As a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, the DMORTs, we were tasked by President Bush to be deployed to ground zero,” Walsh-Haney said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, doctor Walsh-Haney was a graduate student at the University of Florida. She remembers the moment she got the news in a meeting with her mentor and former Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
“In her meeting room, she had huge television monitors up on her walls, and I remember the news report showing a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” Walsh-Haney said. “I remember the smoke billowing from the plane, and right away, I know in my mind I was trying to understand the scale of the plane that had hit and immediately Dr. Falcetti had said, ‘That’s a jetliner. There’s a jet that has hit the World Trade Center. We’re going to be deployed to this mass fatalities event. Be ready, Heather. I’m sure you’ll get your orders.’”
Walsh-Haney got her orders the night of Sept. 11. By daybreak, she was on the road, driving from Gainesville to ground zero.
“I felt being a part of it privileged to be able to use my training, education and experience to help our country,” Walsh-Hanye said. “I was also married and wondering, you know, I was leaving my husband behind. When would be the next time that I would see him?”
The site at ground zero was too dangerous, so her team worked at the Staten Island landfill.
“As I remember, the debris just started coming to the landfill, and it was our job to help identify evidence from firefighter’s jackets with their names on it, to fire hats, to biological materials that would come through, trying to determine whether the material in front of us was human or non,” Walsh-Haney said.
The mission included 12-hour days and lonely nights Walsh-Haney worked for three weeks straight.
“It’s not until I myself was up in the plane, and I could still see ground zero smoking and smoldering that it hit me,” Walsh-Haney said.
But that was not the only way the aftermath of 9/11 hit her. After her deployment to ground zero, her brother, Nicholas Rudolph Walsh, was deployed to Iraq.
“Our response to those attacks, was a war, and so my brother was there,” Walsh-Haney said.
Walsh died in the war when he was shot by a sniper. He was 27 years old and left behind two children.
Twenty years after 9/11, Walsh-Haney’s emotions are still raw, still palpable. She is still trying to piece together a painful puzzle, one she feels will never really make sense.
“I have a very hard time thinking about it and the direction that we are going and where we’ve been,” Walsh-Haney said.