UI Employee Back After Trip to Identify Bodies in Joplin

A view of the tornado's path, near Joplin High School, Friday, May 27, 2011, in Joplin, Mo. (AP Photo/The Joplin Globe, T. Rob Brown)

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By Aaron Hepker

IOWA CITY, Iowa - A University of Iowa Employee has returned from Joplin, Missouri, after a mission to help identify remains. Darrell M. Wilkins, Director of the Deeded Body Program at the UI’s Carver College of Medicine, said he took part in the successful identification of 131 bodies in the days after the May 22 tornado.

“I got a call that said–you need to be in Joplin, Missouri at nine o’clock tomorrow morning,” said Wilkins. “So I drove through the night to get there.”

Wilkins is one of the original members of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, established in 1991 to respond to mass fatality disasters. Wilkins has gone on similar missions to New York after the September 11 attack, and most recently to New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina.

“The thing that drives it is knowing that you’re helping these families in the worst time to get their loved ones back,” said Wilkins.

In ten days the team was able to identify the remains of all 131 victims brought to their make-shift morgue. Wilkins said the Joplin Morgue was set up in an old fireworks building selected with the help of the Jasper county coroner and sheriff’s offices.

“No victim is released until we have a positive ID on that victim,” said Wilkins. “In the Joplin operation we had 100-percent ID before we left.”

Wilkins points to his nearly 20 years of work in the funeral business and 18 years at UI for helping to prepare him for such tasks. He also credits his Southwest Iowa upbringing.

“There are some people who do (develope) mental health problems, it’s just the scope of it,” Wilkins said. “I walk out the door, I leave it there. I don’t take it with me, I don’t think about it, I don’t dwell on it. I come back the next day and do it all over again.”

Wilkins said the most difficult part of this job was leaving because of the devastation that remains.

“You feel really satisfied, but you find yourself wanting to go back and be there even when the job is done,” he said.

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