Flood water swept through the two cemeteries near the Flint River in downtown Albany in 1994. (Albany Herald file photo)
ALBANY — As the flood waters of the greatest natural disaster in the region’s history bore down on the people of Albany and Southwest Georgia, thousands upon thousands of them chased from their homes — many of whom would never return — by the ever-rising waters, many asked the rhetorical question: What new horror is next?
Go here to see the 20th anniversary special section on the Flood of 1994.
That question was answered with a vengeance when caskets — first one or two here or there, and, eventually, hundreds — began to surface in the flood waters, forced out of their assumed final resting places by pressure from underground streams on grounds saturated with water.
By the time the flood waters of the Flint River and other nearby creeks and waterways receded, 438 caskets had washed up from Albany’s Oakview and Riverside cemeteries. Months of detailed forensics analysis led to the identification and reburial of all but 95 of the remains washed to the surface during the Flood of ‘94. Those 95 are buried now on the “hill of the unknowns,” numbers marking their final resting place as officials await some clue, some DNA evidence or some new technology that will allow them to finally return the unfortunate souls to rest.
New state and local burial laws have been enacted in the wake of the ‘94 flood, laws that make a repeat of the massive exhumation of caskets less likely. All burials now must be at uniform 5- to 6-foot depths. “Surface burials” in which the tops of 38-inch-deep vaults serve as grave-marker slabs for the remains no longer allowed. Also, no burials or even cremations may be performed until funeral directors have checked and noted proper identification tags on the remains of the deceased.
Still, the gruesome visuals of caskets floating in the overflowing waters of the Flint, of remains that emerged from caskets opened by the flood waters ensnared on fences running along the perimeter of the cemeteries, have haunted the dreams of many Southwest Georgians in the 20 years since the flood waters came to the region.
“There were groups of people, volunteers and city employees, who had the duty of rounding up the coffins and securing them so that they could be collected and taken to the (Exchange Club) Fairgrounds,” said Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler, a trained mortician at the time of the flood who volunteered to help Federal Emergency Management and Georgia Emergency Management agencies identify and eventually rebury the displaced dead. “I’ve seen video footage of what had to be for a lot of people some pretty horrific sights, of bodies that were found hanging from fences after some of the caskets came open.
“Years after the flood waters receded and things returned to pretty much normal around here, people would find bones and skulls that turned out to be remains of bodies that were disinterred during the flood.”
Casket retrieval volunteers told stories of sealed caskets “shooting out of the ground like rockets,” forced from graves by the pressure of the flood waters.
“Families have asked me about that phenomenon, and I explain to them that it’s like taking an aquarium and filling it with water, and then placing a basketball in the water and holding it down with your hand,” Albany Cemetery Manager Judge Ashe, who has been at the position going on 15 years, said. “Once the soil, which is represented by the hand holding the basketball down, is completely saturated and is washed away, the pressure forces the ball to the surface.
“The caskets that washed up from our cemeteries were from every section. There was no pattern, no rhyme or reason. There might be eight in a row in one section, then one remained, then another one washed up a little farther down. It was all based on the soil and the amount of pressure forcing the caskets through that soil.”
Albany architect David Maschke’s family was one of those impacted by the flood water. Sylvia Weintrab, the paternal grandmother of Maschke’s wife, Carolyn, was interred in the “Jewish section” of the Oakview Cemetery when the flood waters came. Joe Weintraub, Carolyn Maschke’s father, was able to identify his mother’s burial clothing, one of the primary means by which officials identified disinterred remains.
“My father-in-law was able to help officials identify his mother’s remains, but he refused to allow them to rebury her in the same location,” David Maschke said. “Despite assurances that this wouldn’t happen again, Joe and his family bought a plot about 100 to 150 feet from the original burial site.
“I have to say, though, that city officials and cemetery personnel were very concerned and compassionate during that ordeal. Our family always appreciated them handling that emergency situation very professionally.”
Fowler said he “listened to God” while making the decision to help state and federal forensics officials identify the remains that were disinterred by the flood waters.
“No one was really volunteering to help out, and I told people I was considering it,” Fowler said. “That didn’t go over well with some in the community. I was a certified mortician, working at different funeral homes, and one funeral director told me to never come back to his funeral home if I volunteered.
“But these people were our neighbors, and I felt it was important to help them return to their proper resting places. I truly feel that God led me to volunteer.”
Once the remains in the 438 caskets were collected, they were taken to a staging ground set up at the fairgrounds. There, they were placed in refrigerated trucks and transported to Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, where forensics experts were afforded the opportunity to work in privacy.
There, Fowler said, bodies were removed from the caskets and any clothing and jewelry removed, identified and marked. The remains were thoroughly examined for tattoos or other identifying marks. Each set of remains was assigned a case number and taken through dental, fingerprinting and x-ray exams. Once bodies had been identified — or gone through all physical examinations — their bones were cleaned and they were redressed in the clothing they’d originally been buried in.
Remains were placed in new caskets and buried in new vaults, the old ones destroyed by GEMA and FEMA officials. The remains were reburied in their original gravesites — except for those cases like Sylvia Weintraub’s in which they were buried in new plots or moved elsewhere by distraught family members. The 95 unknowns are buried in graves marked only by numbers.
“The research was conducted on all of the remains, but even with extensive testing the identities of those were never found,” Ashe said. “They will remain on our hill of the unknowns until FEMA or GEMA comes up with some new method of identifying them.”
Fowler, meanwhile, was hired by the GBI to work at its crime lab in the wake of his volunteer forensics work. He also became part of the national Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team and has since been deployed to 17 world disaster sites, including the Thailand tsunami, the World Trade Center in New York after 9-11, post-hurricane in Haitti and a plane crash site in Guam. In 2012, he was elected Dougherty County coroner.