Tonja Anderson-Dell lives in Tampa, Florida, but a good part of her time and attention is focused thousands of miles away -- on an Alaska glacier. Like dozens of family members of service members killed in a 1952 plane crash on Colony Glacier she is still awaiting word on the identification of her grandfather's remains.
In 1952, Isaac Anderson was a 21-year-old Air Force airman on his way to a duty station in Korea when the C-124 Globemaster II he was in crashed into a mountain just above Colony Glacier, about 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 men on board. His son, Anderson-Dell's father, was an 18-month-old baby when Anderson died.
Anderson-Dell runs a Facebook group for families of the airmen killed in the crash. She has attended funeral services for many of the 17 service members whose remains or partial remains have been identified. She has spent hours on the phone, talking about how the crash has affected the families left behind. She traveled to the crash site last June to see for herself the recovery efforts of the plane, personal effects and remains of its 52 occupants.
Anderson-Dell said she's thankful for the work done by the Air Force, Department of Defense and mountaineering crews. But her patience is waning -- especially since a jurisdictional shift among the agencies responsible for the recovery effort and DNA testing has delayed by at least six months the identification of the remains found on the ice in 2014 and 2015.
After 60 years of waiting, any delay is too long, Anderson-Dell said. Her father, now 65, is in poor health and suffers from a heart condition.
"One of my biggest concerns is that he (my father) won't be here when they finally say, 'yes, we have positively identified your father (my grandfather).'" Anderson-Dell said.
Anderson-Dell is dealing with multiple military agencies that have different jurisdictions, but they all share the same mission: to bring back and identify the remains of U.S. troops.
Each summer since the plane was found in 2012, military teams have returned to the glacier to find more remains, personal artifacts and plane parts, which are constantly uncovered and swallowed again by the shifting glacier ice.
Until this past spring, those efforts were led by Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (formerly known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command), which works to recover remains from war zones and from overseas.
But the Alaska crash didn't happen in a war zone, it happened on American soil. Most of the passengers on board were headed to duty stations throughout Alaska or in Korea. Because they didn't fall in war, the recovery of the service members' remains should have been given to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, which is under the Air Force. The task of identifying the remains should have gone to the Armed Forces medical examiner.
The error wasn't noticed until January 2015 and prompted the recovery and identification work to shift to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System office and the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations office.
The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said it has known the identities of remains found at the glacier since at least March. But it hasn't released those names because it is no longer authorized to do so.
"The remains recovered in 2014 were sampled for DNA in July 2014, immediately after their arrival in our lab in Hawaii," said Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter, a spokeswoman with the agency, in an email to Alaska Dispatch News. "DNA results began to arrive back to our lab during the fall of 2014. By March 2015, final reports of new identifications were available, but due to the jurisdictional change, the identifications of the remains were deferred for the Armed Forces medical examiner to make."
Meanwhile, the identities of remains found on the glacier in 2014 haven't been released to their families. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System would only say that it has received the remains.
"The (Armed Forces medical examiner) is currently in the process of cataloging, matching remains to DNA reports and determining if further testing is required," Armed Forces Medical Examiner System Director Col. Ladd Tremaine said.
Anderson-Dell said she tried to go through military channels to find out the status of work on the 2014 remains but didn't get anywhere. She sent letters to her U.S. senator and to media that have covered the story.
"I want them to be truthful and up front about the process to the families," Anderson-Dell said. "The families should not have to go to the media to get answers."
Going forward, the Department of Defense's agency -- the one that used to be in charge of the recovery -- said its crews, which have worked on the glacier since 2012, would be available to help train the new crews working on the recovery effort, which will resume next summer.
But Anderson-Dell said replacing the experienced workers, who know the layout of the glacier and where remains had previously been found, is an unacceptable solution to a problem that never should have existed.
"These people know the site inside and out," Anderson-Dell said. "They know the markers and how the glacier has moved. So now you are training 11 new people, wasting money, to figure this glacier out? They have never been on it. And you will assist if they need you? They are not sending someone there? That sounds crazy to me, but the government functions totally differently."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing