Team works to give disaster victims back a part of their lives

Personal effects are removed from the site of an airline disaster.
Leticia Montemayer sits in a large warehouse in Fort Worth, Texas. Working at a folding desk, there are a handful of small items in front of her: A shattered pair of aviator sunglasses, captain’s wings, a tiny purse, and the metal frame of what appears to be an iPhone.

These are all items recovered from a recent plane crash in the United States. We can’t tell you which one because victims and their family members haven’t seen or identified their personal items yet. Montemayer has made her career cleaning and cataloguing items from air disasters. She works for Global-BMS. The company works with U.S.-based airliners to return personal effects. Sometimes items are returned to survivors; but more often than not, they go to the next of kin. “Anything you would ever travel with — anything — we have had at one time,” says company Vice President Mark Rocco. Rocco grabs a few small, numbered plastic bags containing items. “This is some kind of electronic device. An, ‘I love you’ something or another,” he says about a small plastic container with the sentimental message. Global-BMS has been in the business of disaster recovery for decades, focusing on the aftermath of hurricanes, fires, tornadoes, and flooding. In the immediate aftermath of a crash, Rocco is one of the few people who can slip past police lines and work a disaster site with National Transportation Safety Board authorities. Rocco admits it can be an emotional job. “It will rip you to shreds. You learn skills from people in the industry that teach you how to take care of yourself,” he says. “You’ll shed tears like anybody else when you talk about stories.”

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Currently Global-BMS is working four crashes, among them are the disaster in Buffalo, New York, and the so-called “miracle on the Hudson.” The company is also on standby to go to Brazil and assist with the Air France crash. At the scene, no item is overlooked, and nothing is considered insignificant. Personal effects are divided into two categories: “associated,” meaning the company knows who the item belongs to, and “unassociated,” meaning they don’t. Global-BMS photographs and catalogues every item that comes in, no matter how small. Shredded clothes, books that are water-logged, fire-charred books, damaged jewelry — Global-BMS retrieves and restores each item. “It’s clean, safe to handle, and it’s odor free,” Rocco says. “So you don’t smell anything from the incident — jet fuel. No smoke odor.” Global-BMS puts the items on a secure Web site and sends the legal representative of the person involved in the crash a password to view the items. Families have the choice of saying they want certain effects, or not.

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Several survivors of the “miracle on the Hudson” have been reunited with items they thought were long gone. Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, who safely guided the jet into the Hudson River, was able to retrieve his library books. Other survivors of that accident have been reunited with items they thought were long gone. Eric Stevenson, of Paris, France, received his luggage four months after the crash. “Overall the company that managed the restoration did a good job,” Stevenson says. “It was thoroughly cleaned. Wool items shrunk due to the freezing Hudson water,” pointing out that the sleeves on his sports jacket were now several inches too short. “Seeing my luggage again felt very strange, knowing it was submerged with the aircraft,” he says. “The last time I saw these items was the morning of the crash, and they now finally return home as if they have their own story to tell.” Looking at crash victims’ personal items has given Rocco a new outlook on life. “It’s a very humbling experience,” he says. “You don’t take life for granted. You are thankful to see the sun come up every day.”