Denny McLean grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin before joining the United States Air Force immediately after high school.
He joined the military in 1962 and was active through 1966. E-9 Chief Master Sergeant, Services Superintendent, McLean joined the reserves in 1980 retiring in 2004, when he turned 60 years old.
Little did McLean know that his journey of four active years and 24 reserve years in the services department would lead him to Port Mortuary in Dover, Delaware working on autopsies on the 9/11 Pentagon victims and other catastrophes.
“We had good support over there,” McLean said of his time at Port Mortuary.
Day of attack
On September 11, 2001 McLean was working in Kasota, Minnesota as a heavy equipment operator, down in the mine at the time. McLean recalls co-workers and himself having their radios on in their loaders when they heard about the attack on the Twin Towers.
That night when he returned home, expecting to leave for his wedding anniversary trip on Sept. 12, he got a call that he needed to report to Minneapolis to the Air Force Reserve base the next morning.
“We got up to the base and stayed overnight and were waiting for transportation because everything was grounded,” McLean said. “We called down to command and asked, ‘Do you still need us?’ And they said, ‘Yeah we’re waiting for you’ and they gave us authorization. We took one of our planes and we had an escort with us on the plane and we were the only plane in the air, flew out to Dover, Delaware and we landed at Dover…”
Once they were in Delaware the nine reservists flown from Minnesota, part of the 934th AirLift Wing, along with four or five other bases that were brought in from across the country, were taken to Port Mortuary, located at the Dover Air Force Base.
The weekend they arrived in Dover, the Dover Downs International Speedway, now renamed Dover International Speedway, NASCAR race was scheduled to take place. With the influx of military personnel flying in to work at Port Mortuary, NASCAR gave up their hotel for them because there was no room for them.
Miss America came out to visit along with a NASCAR bringing a car out for the military to see. McLean said Oliver Garden and other big local restaurants brought food out for them because they were working long hours.
“We had long hours,” McLean said. “You start early in the morning and you can’t quite until the last parts come in late at night, so we were real busy there for a week and a half two weeks just with parts and then after that it was waiting for the parts to come in and everything.”
Duty at Port Mortuary
McLean worked in services, which included feeding the troops, billeting care, commissary, recreational and mortuary duties.
He thought that working in autopsy would be the work of medical staff, but they care for the patients who are still alive, while services care for the deceased.
At Port Mortuary after the 9/11 attacks, he assisted in the autopsy process on the 125 Pentagon workers and what they could gather of the 64 on board American Airlines Flight 77.
“It was scary,” McLean said about when he first arrived to Port Mortuary for autopsy. “You stand there and the garage door opens and there’s the refrigerator truck and there’s the smell. The first time you’re there ‘How do I deal with the smell of burnt and flesh?’ And once it’s in your clothing and shoes you can’t get rid of it, that smell...Once the door opens and the bag’s unzipped, it’s a job and you do it. The initial moment you’re scared. You deal with it...I have to do it and all it is is a job.”
There is a rigorous process for the deceased when they are in the military or government. When McLean was working autopsy there was a crew of people who each had their own specific duty.
The remains were flown to Dover with an American Flag over them while in a transfer case. Military personnel took the remains off the aircraft upon arrival and loaded the case into the hearse which transfers them to Port Mortuary for autopsy.
While still in the transfer case the body is put through an X-ray to check for metal or weapons before the next step of opening the case and taking pictures from all angles. Everything is documented throughout the process and given an identification number.
“You don’t mess up,” McLean said of autopsy work. “It’s all got to be zero mistakes, zero, zero mistakes.”
After photographing the remains are moved to the identification process. This consists of taking fingerprints, DNA samples or other means to identify the body or body part. Again the deceased are X-rayed before they are cleared for the autopsy.
There were about three cooler semi trucks on site during the process.
Not all of the bodies were whole, so the remains were all assigned a number and placed in the cooler after a DNA sample was taken. Once the DNA results came back they were able to find that specific number and put all of the pieces together.
McLean said they had well over 4,200 parts that they had to identify.
McLean assisted with the autopsy process weighing organs from the bodies and documenting all of the information. One person’s job was to document every incision, mole and mark on the body.
“A lot of people couldn’t work with the bodies like that,” McLean said. “A lot of people worked making up the uniforms. When that body goes in, it’s spotless. There’s not a piece of lint or anything on the body. It’s very respectful.”
After the examination, the deceased was ready for embalming before they were put into uniforms with the necessary accessories and returned home to their loved ones.
The reservists and medical team working on the 9/11 victims made sure to do so with the utmost respect while handling the bodies, even placing the American Flag on their caskets for the return home.
While working in autopsy McLean spoke of how they discovered people with cancer, with tumors, cancer cells or even clogged arteries and they never knew it.
“The hardest part out there — and there were several people who had to take off — was the personal effects and personal effects is the hardest because it all comes with them…” McLean said. “Personal effects was hard because you start going through this person’s wallet and it’s hard because you have to write everything that was in that wallet has to be written down no matter what and then you’re dealing with pictures of their kids, their wife, a letter, a love note or something to this person, so it really connects. We found out that’s the hardest part. You’re connecting these parts (and bodies) to people. They’ve got children, they’ve got a wife, they’ve got a life and stuff…”
Toward the end of the four-week stint at Port Mortuary the crew had to autopsy Flight 77 passengers or what they found on the site along with the members of Flight 93 that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
Not everyone was fond of what they were doing at Port Mortuary. McLean said that they received a lot of backlash because of false information. There were thoughts that they were putting parts in the dumpster, which McLean states as untrue. He said the deceased who came through Port Mortuary got the highest respect.
McLean said that everything is perfection and the flag is on top of the deceased, the flag goes with them, and a flag is on the casket when they come through Port Mortuary.
When he was finished with his time at Port Mortuary identifying 9/11 victims he received a flag that had been placed on a transfer case when it was transported from the Pentagon to Dover.
More U.S. attacks worked at Port Mortuary
McLean worked his first autopsy for the 19 Marines killed in the MV-22 Osprey accident on April 8, 2000. They were simulating a rescue when the crash happened at Marana Northwest Regional Airport in Arizona.
The next one he worked on was the U.S.S. Cole, which was a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer that was bombed in Yemen killing 17 U.S. soldiers.
The last catastrophe he worked, following 9/11, was the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster with seven casualties. The Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric entry. This was the second fatal accident in the Space Shuttle program and as a result all shuttles were grounded for 29 months.
“Well I had problems at first,” McLean said of returning home from working at Port Mortuary. “ I had problems there when I did the Osprey... and then I had problems with the astronauts. I get nightmares on them sometimes…”
From all of the experiences he has had through his time in the military and the reserves McLean is and has been willing to share his story with any group that would like to have him as a guest speaker.
McLean has returned to Dover Air Force Base, but he has not been able to see the dedicated memorial at the Pentagon for those who died in 9/11.
During his military career he was able to meet former President John F. Kennedy before he was assassinated and when he was the commander of the American Legion in White Bear Lake he had Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the grand marshal in the parade he was organizing so McLean had him over for dinner beforehand.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people and did some interesting things,” McLean said.