For 20 years Bernard Levy lived with the fear that an airline accident or some other huge disaster would leave him alone with hundreds of unidentified corpses.
As the only forensic dentist on call to the Maryland medical examiner's office, it would be his responsibility alone to provide authorities and the victims' families with positive identifications.
Other well-meaning dentists would surely offer to help, he hoped, "but how many would volunteer, and how good would they be?" he asked.
In December, however, 36 Maryland dentists completed a two-day crash course in forensic dentistry taught by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. They now constitute Maryland's first statewide network of forensic dentists, ready to serve the state in large disasters and small local mysteries.
Levy's nightmare almost came to life in January 1986, when an Amtrak train packed with passengers collided with a string of Conrail freight engines in Chase.
Sixteen people were killed, and it was Levy's responsibility to identify the dead. Many of them were young women who, because women generally keep such things in purses rather than pockets, became separated from their identification papers the crash.
It's no simple process. In large-scale disasters, Levy said, forensic experts typically divide into three groups: one to examine the remains and draw up dental charts; another to contact the families and dentists of persons believed to have been involved, and to take dental records over the telephone; and the third group to match up the data assembled by the first two groups.
The system minimizes the chances for error in a critical process.
Because only 16 people died in the Chase accident, Levy was able to do the identifications himself. But "my big fear all along has been, what if a plane goes down?" Levy said.
"Most states aren't prepared for identifications in a disaster."
"Now we have a disaster team," Levy said. "We're in real good shape now."