Rock County deputy coroner on-scene after 9/11

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The office of Rock County Deputy Coroner Lou Smit is adorned with personal artifacts that document his life during the events of the terror attacks 10 years ago.

Next to the doorway hangs a frame that contains an email he sent to the WhiteHouse offering his Kitsap County team's support in the aftermath of the attacks.

Pictures of first responders digging through the rubble at the World Trade Center site and the burning wing at the Pentagon are situated across from his desk. Directly to the left of his computer is a printout of the FBI's most wanted terrorists list. Smit has crossed three pictures off the list since he originally put it on the wall, which includes the recently killed Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

"I like to keep my eye on the bad guys," Smit said.

Smit tells the story of the days that followed the Sept. 11 attacks through his own personal experience searching "the pile" and retrieving remains from the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks.

"From a death investigator's point of view, 9/11 was no different from any other day," Smit said. "Each case gets the same amount of attention as any other one. The difference came from knowing that we were at war."

Smit worked for years on a project to create an online communication tool for medical examiners and death investigators. He worked closely with the FBI on the project, and spent the latter half of the 1990s lobbying members of Congress for funding. The project, he said, was vital in case of a large-scale terror event or natural disaster.

The project met several hurdles along the way and Smit had to start nearly from scratch following the administration transition in 2001.

"The FBI was not interested in terrorism," he said. "They told me it was not their priority at the moment."

In July 2001, Smit wrote a letter to then Vice President Dick Cheney that outlined his concerns about the hypothetical aftermath of a large-scale, multi-target terrorist attack in the United States, and a lack of infrastructure in the death investigation system to mitigate any problems that would occur.

The letter made the statement that it was the belief of Congress and others that we were going to get hit in multiple cities, with the potential of thousands of victims. Smit thought that should a terror attack occur, the system was not able to respond adequately. Smit said he was surprised when Cheney requested a meeting.

Smit said Cheney seemed intensely interested at the meeting. He wanted to know about detection, whether the system would allow for multiple views of information in the White House, and why Smit believed the United States was expecting an attack.

"Ultimately they said they were only less than six months into their administration," Smit said. "And most of their appointments to make this happen hadn't even occurred yet."

Smit said any further plans for the project were shelved while the administration finalized its appointments. He continued to keep in contact with the Justice Department in the time leading up to the September attacks.

He awoke on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the news with his wife and 4-year old son. He immediately ran to his home office to send an email to the White House that offered the help of Kitsap County investigators and was sent on a military flight to New Jersey the very next night.

"I didn't want him to go, because he was recovering from the surgery," Smit's wife, Alice Smit, said. "Our son was 4 at the time, but he was a smart kid. He knew what was going on."

Lou Smit was able to make infrequent calls home, even as communications were strained in the area.

"I think the first time I called home I told my wife that she would not believe what this looked like," Lou Smit said. "I had been to New York before, so I knew what the skyline looked like. Right away you could see the smoke and knew something was off about it. As you got closer it looked like this giant black hole. It's hard to describe. It wasn't like it looked on television."

Smit said the scene was chaotic, but not as chaotic as he had expected just 48 hours after the disaster. He said the presence of many government agencies, most of whom could not communicate with one another, created a sense of "dysfunction." A "Wall of Tears" was started that morning where family and friends of missing persons put pictures and information on a public display. The display was initially a small part of the temporary Family Assistance Center, however the poster expanded constantly in the days following the attack.

Lou Smit had three objectives: the first was to try to find identification or personal belongings that could identify the victims, the second was to separate civilian victims from service members, and the third was to identify the remains of the hijackers. He said they were able to recover 262 "full-sized" bodies, but explained that the term "full-sized" was a bit of a misnomer.

"We had one guy who had a regular full-sized body, but when we looked he was only about three inches thick. He had been crushed," he said. "We noticed on another guy that he had two sets of teeth. And it was just kind of strange. We realized later that he got crunched with another person, and two faces morphed with one body."

On average the most amount of remains that could be found would be an arm or a leg at most, Smit said.

"Every time you found a body or part of a body everyone stopped," he said. "It caused operations to slow a bit."

Smit worked until Sept. 20 when he and his colleague were asked to travel to the Capitol to explain the situation at Ground Zero. He returned to the pile for another round of work before he traveled home to Kitsap County, Wash. He was asked to address congressional leaders again a few years later as part of the 9/11 commission report.

"The first thing we did when he got back was go to Disneyland," Alice said. "We took our son there and we went because we didn't want to be afraid of flying."

Alice said she noticed that Lou began having nightmares and cold sweats about six months later. He said that he has been experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, among other health problems he has faced since his work at the pile.

"My lungs were trashed, like everyone else's, and in 2003 out of the blue I ended up with restrictive lung disease," he said. "I have wounds around my leg where I was punctured by debris because my foot was numb after surgery. I went through three casts because the first got shredded, and a second got shredded as well."

Lou had further surgery in 2003 to try to heal the wounds in his leg, but it was botched. He said the leg "has been septic ever since."

"The doctor I saw last week was not sure what do with it," he said. "I'm planning on dealing with it, because there's not much they can do besides lopping it off. They've suggested that a few times."

Lou said he was included and approved by the health coverage provided by the federal James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act; however, special provisions have locked him out of financial help since he was considered a "volunteer worker."

The only way his family will see benefits from the bill, he said, is if his death can be linked to the conditions at the WTC site.

"I think the main premise is money, because the payoff went to certain levels of illness and primarily went to people of New York," he said. "Now I can sit around and be mad about it, but that's not why I went."

Lou planned to retire, but insurance issues caused him to continue to look for employment. He found the open deputy position and contacted Coroner Jennifer Keach to apply. He has been working in his Rock County position since 2010.

Alice said he continues to have nightmares and sleeps for only one to two hours at a time. Lou said the events of that day are constantly on his mind because terrorism has become a part of his family's daily life. He has a daughter who spent five years in Iraq with the military, and later became a firefighter at Ft. Hood outside Killeen, Texas. She was present when Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opened fire on soldiers and Ft. Hood personnel.

Lou said he tries to put the events of September 11th in perspective with his career in death investigation.

"These feelings are not an uncommon thing in our profession," he said. "Death piles up on you. You have got to talk about it, because you can't deal with death five days a week and not have it affect you."

He said the country still has work to do to develop a functional infrastructure for death investigation in events with large-scale casualties.

"While we've made a lot of strides to protect the country, the one area we really have not made strides in is death investigation, mitigation or response," Lou said. "There have been some improvements, but we still do not have a central way for all agencies to communicate and interact with one another. We need to get our act together. If and when another attack happens, we need to be prepared."

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