Stiff The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Chapter 5 Summary
“Beyond the Black Box” Injury analysis and aviation pathology is the focus of Chapter Five. Roach interviews Dennis Shanahan, who is an injury analyst that worked on the fatal crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. An injury analyst is a person who analyzes the wounds of people to determine what exactly happened during a traumatic injury, which could be anything from a non-fatal car crash to a devastating plane crash. This type of work is beneficial to insurance and car companies looking to investigate lawsuit claims of faulty products.
Injury analysts are also used to determine, by looking at the injuries on dead bodies, what happened at the scene of a car or plane accident. Using TWA Flight 800 as a case study, Roach, alongside Shanahan, walks us through the process of a forensic-injury analysis, as he tries to determine what happened when TWA Flight 800 fell from the sky. TWA Flight 800, a flight from New York City to Paris, “blew apart” over the Atlantic, not far from East Moriches, New York.
Based on witness reports, it was unclear if the plane had been struck by a missile or if an internal explosion caused the crash. Immediately after the crash, Shanahan was called in to examine the bodies of the dead, and to weigh in on what happened. Roach wants to know how, scientifically and emotionally, a person is able to do this type of grueling work. Most of the bodies from TWA Flight 800 were recovered completely whole. When it is parts of bodies, Shanahan says that “it’s gory, but not sad” (116).
With whole bodies, it is more emotionally distressing. Because the bodies were whole, this has implications for what happened to make TWA Flight 800 crash. Bodies can help determine whether a bomb went off, based on their “intactness” as well as the numbers and trajectories of “foreign objects” embedded within them (117). Based on the states of the bodies (as well as the charred remains of the plane), Shanahan is able to determine that sparks from frayed wires ignited one of the fuel tanks in TWA Flight 800, as opposed to a bomb having gone off.
Roach gives a brief history of the “unjolly science” of injury analysis, which began in 1954, when two British Comet airliners “mysteriously dropped from the sky into the sea” (121). The investigation was carried out by Britain’s Royal Air Force Institute of Aviation Medicine in Farnborough, which concluded, after a lengthy investigation (involving ballistic tests on guinea pigs), that a structural failure had caused both planes to break apart mid-air.
The chapter concludes with more general questions about airline safety. Roach also asks Shanahan about the costliness of safety: “[c]ould airlines do a better job of making their planes fire-safe? You bet they could” (125). However, at least from the perspective of the Federal Aviation Administration, the cost-benefit analysis for better airline safety measures is not great enough, so it simply is not done.