…AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH September/October 2023

vehicle covered with ash

Ramesh Nyberg

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Albert Einstein

For the last several days, our sisters and brothers in blue have joined with various rescue task forces in Maui in the grim task of recovering human remains in the wake of the devastating wildfires and hurricane there. Some of those people will be found drowned and many more burned beyond recognition. From the last estimate I read, some 800 people are still missing. This will be a grueling; exhausting; and, ultimately, heart-wrenching task.

When you consider that we willingly launch ourselves into those operations, and that we just as willingly subject ourselves daily to extreme physical danger and verbal abuse for comparatively low pay, it does beg the question, “Why?,” doesn’t it? I remember when I started applying to police departments in early 1979, all I could think about was the excitement; the thrill of being out there and enforcing the law; and being “the man.” People look up to us (yes, even today, many people still do). They envy our position and they envision us as their protectors and saviors. That’s a big responsibility – and a fairly sizable ego boost as well.

Running parallel to that aspect of law enforcement, though, is an important component which I never consciously thought of until much later in my career. I suppose the first time it became apparent was after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida and shredded a good portion of southern Miami-Dade County, including my own neighborhood. We went on “alpha-bravo” in the aftermath of the storm – two 12 hour shifts and all sworn personnel had no days off. Many roads were blocked with fallen trees and debris. There was no electricity for much of the county for a good month (my power didn’t come back on for three and a half weeks). The water table was contaminated and there were scalpers coming in and selling water for five dollars a gallon – and people were lined up to buy it. It was a bizarre, crazy time. Amazingly, we had only 37 deaths attributed to the storm. Unlike most hurricanes, it was a dry, fast-moving storm. The damage which was done was due to sustained winds of 150 plus miles per hour. We spent a great deal of time helping citizens get to shelters; working to clear our own homes so that we could get cars out of driveways; catching looters; and, basically, trying to make the community livable again. It was exhausting work, but I also remember this great feeling inside every day when I went home to the whine of my generator. I was doing what we’ve heard so many times it had become schmaltzy: I was helping people. I think sometimes police work gets so busy and so intense that we don’t have time to reflect on that simple concept. We got into this line of work because something deep inside of us wants a different paycheck – the one which says you made life better for another human being.      

The next time that really hit home was in May of 1996, after the crash of ValuJet flight 592 in the Everglades. After hazardous materials were inadvertently placed in the baggage compartment of the plane and ignited seven minutes after takeoff, the plane went down in flames and plunged into four feet of mucky swamp water, killing all 111 aboard. We were sent out initially for a rescue/recovery effort, but in the first ten minutes of arriving in the debris field, we knew there was no rescuing to be done. The next three weeks were spent in airboats, methodically picking up the remains of the victims, most of whom had been traveling for Mother’s Day between Miami and Atlanta. We worked with fire and rescue to create a “forward base camp” on a narrow, dirt levee road. It took us about 45 minutes to drive out to the staging area, then a 20 minute ride on a boat which ferried us out to the base camp which was outfitted with air-conditioned tents where we rested between relays on the airboats. After the first two days, the telltale scent of decomposition began to rise from the saw grass. While luggage and clothing bobbed in the water around us, we fished the remains out of the water and into bags which all went into a large body bag. We brought the body bags back to the base camp where they were transported to the medical examiner’s office for the long process of identification. It was extremely hot, tiring, nasty work.

And, who were we “helping,” after all? They were all dead.

The answer to that question came one afternoon about a week into the operation. A large bus came lumbering slowly down the levee road and we were told that these were the crash victims’ next of kin who wanted to come and see the area for themselves. We halted the relay process as they arrived. We lined up on the roadway and saluted them. They returned the salutes. Some of them cheered, waved and blew us kisses. As you may imagine, there was not a dry eye anywhere at Forward Base Camp 592 that afternoon. Just writing this now, 27 years later, makes me tear up.           

A representative from the families on that bus placed a large flower wreath in the water and we passed it each time we went out on a relay. We did make a difference. Our work assured those family members that every effort was being made to recover their loved ones so they could give them a proper goodbye, rather than leave them to deteriorate in a lonely, forgotten corner of the Everglades. Those people remembered us – and we remembered them.

That feeling never goes away. Five years ago, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle, destroying all of coastal Panama City and leaving 74 people dead. It was one of the worst hurricanes in history. My wife was puzzled when I told her I wished I could volunteer, go up there and help with the recovery effort.

“You’re sixty years old,” she reminded me. “I’m sure they have plenty of people up there working on it.”

She was right, but the urge to be a part of something like that never goes away. It is still with me today. Decomposed bodies? I’ve seen and handled hundreds of them. Let’s go to work. 

Reading this, you might be reflecting on a recovery effort your agency was involved in. You might be one of those involved in the immense search and recovery effort in Maui and, if so, I pray for your physical safety, as well as your emotional well-being. You’ll never forget the horrors which confronted you during that effort. Don’t ever forget, however, the difference you make for someone and, mostly likely, that will be someone you’ll never meet.

But, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? We pinned on that badge because – whether we realized it or not at that moment – we wanted to live a life for others, not just ourselves. Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years of police work. He lives in Miami and teaches criminal justice at a local high school. He also teaches regional law enforcement courses through Training Force, USA. He enjoys getting feedback from readers and can be reached at ramesh.nyberg@gmail.com. Also, Ram has written a book, The Ten Must-Haves to Be a Great Detective, which is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook. You can find it by visiting https://tinyurl.com/hwc2xajm