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Some Time In New York City (cont ...)

So there was a form to download off the internet that asked a series of questions, and just happened to include enough information to complete a death certificate. OCME was in charge of the data-entry and DC production from this data.

However, the data-entry screen looked like the death certificate, and not like the form from which our team would be reading. I decided that making the data-entry people map from one layout to the other would be a nightmare, and very prone to errors. So I created a new set of screens that mimicked the layout of the source forms exactly – the same font and size, all the supporting text, the same pagination. You’d look at the paper form, you’d look at the screen, and you’d know exactly what information was going where.

When I showed this to Shiya Ribowsky, the OCME investigator who had been put in charge of World Trade Center operations, his first reaction was: “who told you to do this?” When I basically replied: “I did”, his next question was: “can you stay a bit longer?”

That question was repeated a few times over the coming days until, essentially, I was asked to stay indefinitely. OK, there were minor details to resolve like a visa (an O-1 ‘alien of exceptional ability’ was sorted out in around two days, and I collected it from the US Embassy in London on a return trip to attend the memorial service at Westminster Abbey for the UK victims of the disaster).

Shifting and Tweaking

The form and the data needed tweaking over time. Naturally, the questions were often very US-centric, but this was an international disaster, and so we had to resolve non-US addresses and telephone numbers, very long Asian last names, and other issues that came up as the team rattled the data in.

The data-entry was initially done by a group of people from an organisation called DMORT – Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team; basically a set of funeral directors and death investigators from around the US. You can think of them as a sub-set of FEMA, the emergency management agency in a country that has a lot of disasters, usually natural. DMORT had been deployed previously at plane crashes and floods, and later after Katrina.

They were coming to New York in two-week tours. The tours overlapped by a week, so half our team changed every week. They were organised into two 12-hour shifts a day.

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