Last November, as wildfires ravaged the town of Paradise, California, Robert Vigil received an urgent call from the Department of Health and Human services (HHS). Local officials were racing to identify the remains of fire victims, and Vigil, who has spent 26 years as a funeral director in Yuma County, Arizona, was needed on the scene.
From the news, Vigil already knew the fires had killed dozens of people and that hundreds more were missing. Under orders from HHS, he hopped on a plane to Butte County, California, where he advised local coroners about how to deal with the influx of fatalities.
Vigil believes he might be the first federally-employed mortician sent to the site of a wildfire. But it’s not the first time the government has deployed him to work in a natural disaster zone. Vigil is one of 186 funeral directors who, when a disaster strikes, becomes an intermittent employee of a little-known division of HHS: the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT. Together with hundreds of other specialists whose day jobs range from medical examiner to pathologist, forensic anthropologist, fingerprint specialist, and even dental assistant, DMORT employees have worked behind-the-scenes for the federal government to deal with the dead following some of the worst disasters in recent U.S. history.
While Vigil did not fly to Paradise, California in his official capacity as a DMORT team commander—he was just there as a funeral director on the federal payroll—he’s been deployed with DMORT teams following Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Katrina, and the 9/11 attacks. Funeral directors like Vigil are often selected for these roles because their skills—an ability to transport, prepare, and sometimes identify bodies in a time crunch—are at a premium in the aftermath of disasters.