Cape orthodontist returns from forensic duties

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dr. Shannon Kirchhoff said he'll probably have to return to New Orleans in the next few weeks.

Cape Girardeau orthodontist Dr. Shannon Kirchhoff returned home last week after spending 14 days in New Orleans doing a grim job: Performing forensic dentistry on victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Kirchhoff said he'll probably have to return to New Orleans in the next few weeks because of the shortage of forensic dentists in the nation. Though the task of identifying victims wasn't a pleasant one, Kirchhoff wants to go back if he's needed.

"I think I'd be crazy to say I liked doing it, but you do it because you want to help people," he said.

While stationed in New Orleans, Kirchhoff was part of two different missions. The first, called the Strike Team, drove to the hardest hit area of New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, to locate victims.

His team reached St. Rita's Nursing Home, whose owners have been charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of more than 30 residents. Late that night the Strike Team had to drive back through a dangerous area called the Red Zone, where Kirchhoff said they risked being shot at.

His other mission was to identify bodies. This was done at a morgue warehouse in St. Gabriel, a small community between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The morgue was supposed to have been a secret, but photographers were everywhere, Kirchhoff said. "They were using things that could pick up your cell phone conversations. CNN helicopters were flying overhead."

At the morgue, Kirchhoff and other trained professionals followed a series of steps to try and identify bodies. One step was to determine if the victim had died of natural causes, which included death resulting from the hurricane, or if the victim had been shot to death. Several people had died from gunshot wounds, he said.

Kirchhoff became involved in forensic dentistry when Missouri began a Missouri Emergency Response Identification Team in 1994.

As part of the forensic dental team, he X-rayed the victims' mouths and recorded his findings.

While at the morgue, Kirchhoff said, he examined approximately 200 bodies.

His work in New Orleans was a life-changing experience, he said.

"Seeing all the victims is what I'll remember the most. But this is what I've been training for. Hopefully the families of the victims will be able to find solitude and peace after this is all over."

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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