Kenyon International Emergency Services, clinically known as a “mass fatality response company,” got its start a century ago, when two brothers, both funeral directors, helped police identify dozens of people killed in a train crash outside London.
Over time, the business evolved to provide forensic services at crime scenes, in particular the return of physical items belonging to the dead.
Sometimes, that meant searching trash mounds where killers disposed of murder victims. Later, a focus turned both to scenes of natural disaster and modern terror sites: Oklahoma City. Ground Zero in New York. Manchester, England, where a suicide bombing killed 22 after a concert by singer Ariana Grande.
In “Personal Effects,” a memoir, company chair and former co-owner Robert A. Jensen writes about guiding families through a process where the goal is to reunite them with the material accessories of a life cut short: “What we want to do,” Jensen told A&E True Crime, “is take care of each family as if they’re the only family that matters.”
Can you break down for us the kind of personal effects typically recovered at a disaster scene?
It could be stuff in a suitcase. It could be watches, jewelry, rings, your bracelet. Not something that necessarily has ‘salable’ value. But they have strong sentimental value. We [handled] EgyptAir 990, the plane that went down off the East Coast of the United States. Civilian divers hired by the Navy recovered cameras and videotapes [from victims]. We were able to get images from memory cards. For families who’ve lost a loved one, that’s vital, because you get to show them pictures of, [for example,] a couple who will never grow old together.
In a lot of cases with mass fatalities—where there’s not, perhaps, the body of a loved one to return—the personal effects are part of a process that helps people accept what’s occurred and begin their transition from what was normal to what will be normal.
Next of kin have to decide if they even want items returned. Do they, typically, want them? You wrote about clothes that might be contaminated with blood or smell of jet fuel.
A majority want the opportunity to go through and claim items that belong to their family members. There are some who don’t. Of those who do claim them, some would like them cleaned, pressed, returned and very nicely [displayed] in presentation cases. Other people would like to just to take the box and put it in their closet, and then they’ll get to it when they get to it. It just depends.
We’ve had parents who, when we say, ‘We’re going to return your child’s clothing,’ they say: ‘I want to wash it, because I’ve spent the last ‘X’ number of years washing my son’s clothes. I want to be the last one to wash his shirt.’ Those are very real experiences.
The company’s services are primarily administrative. You’re not on site as criminal investigators. Do you ever find items that become part of an investigation, inadvertently?
All the time. We [worked the aftermath of Hurricane] Katrina. We had to testify about the Danziger Bridge shootings, because some of the things we recovered had gunshot [damage], which is not a typical hurricane-type injury. [Six days after Katrina hit, a police shooting on the New Orleans bridge led to the killing of two unarmed Black civilians.]
In mass fatalities, there will be patterns at recovery locations, things that you would expect, but then also things that, if you don’t find them, that’s important, too. Like if you set up a call center [in the aftermath of a plane crash] and some of the passengers don’t get any telephone calls…well, that’s unusual, because somebody’s always calling about someone.
After the 2017 Ariana Grande concert bombing in Manchester, recovered property was photographed for a catalog, which was later distributed to families of victims. How did catalogs become part of this process?
We actually started the catalogs in 1996, after the TWA Flight 800 [crash], when federal family assistance laws [were created that] said you have to make personal effects available for families. Before that, it had been a struggle: Do we just lay everything out in a room and tell people to walk through? That can be incredibly overwhelming.
So, how do you go about making sure that all families at one time can look at everything and have an equal opportunity to claim items? That’s the catalog. Today, it’s done online. And it’s been refined. People can say: ‘I only want to see the photographs of jewelry or shoes.’
We find iPods, and there’s a playlist [on it], and somebody says, ‘I know that’s my loved one’s iPod because that was their playlist.’
You become a critical figure in the life of a person going through something awful. And then, as noted in the book, ‘You don’t keep in touch.’ Why?
That’s normal. I’m not a reminder of a good time. When we train people, we tell responders: You’re there to help build a bridge where a canyon’s been created by this event. You’re there to get people over the bridge, so they can go back on with their life.
You were commander of the U.S. Army’s Mortuary Affairs unit before your time in private industry. Has there been a toll, emotionally, to being immersed in so much devastation?
You’d have to ask the people around me… At the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the deceased was a woman, and she had a tennis shoe on one foot and a high-heeled shoe on the other. She had just gotten to work and was changing shoes when the bomb went off. Had she been a couple minutes late that day, she wouldn’t have been on our table. It just was her time.
I tell people: You don’t want the memories I have. I hear a jackhammer and immediately my head goes back to Oklahoma. I see a big truck and I think about the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. The difference is, when you see things on TV, you don’t have the smell or the sounds. Those are the triggers for me. I don’t think you can cheat your time. You just try not to worry, because you can’t control it.