Saturday, October 30, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Flood-Floated Caskets Reburied -- 224 Popped From The Ground In Wake Of Hurricane Floyd


PRINCEVILLE, N.C. - John Ricks endured a ceremony he never thought he would have to go through again - the burial of his wife and 9-year-old son, killed in a traffic accident 21 years ago.

Their coffins were among 224 that popped from the ground and floated away in Hurricane Floyd's floodwaters last month. Yesterday, federal mortuary teams began reburying the dead.

"When I read about all the caskets coming out of the ground, I said, `Not mine,' " said Ricks, of Dale City, Va. His voice broke, he bit his lip and he wiped his eyes as he waited with his father-in-law for the coffins to be put back in the ground. "It's a relief, and at the same time it's like stirring stuff up again because I never stopped loving them."

Hurricane Floyd, packing up to 20 inches of rain, pushed the Tar River to record levels last month, flooding Tarboro and Princeville. Floodwaters washed over the cemeteries, and some coffins in shallow graves floated off.

While the floodwaters were still high, boat crews rounded up the caskets and tied them to trees or anything else solid. They were recovered when the waters receded. More than 200 state and federal employees, and volunteers then set to work identifying the remains in an emergency morgue set up in a warehouse.

Of the 224 recovered caskets, only 15 remain unidentified.

"We have dealt with floods numerous times in this state, but this is the first time we have dealt with anything of this nature, certainly on this scale," said Elaine Wathen, area coordinator for the state Emergency Management Division.

In the warehouse, gray caskets sit row upon row, most marked with "PV" and a number, denoting their final destination as Princeville. Other bear markings to send them to six other counties.

Five specialists with the U.S. Public Health Service's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team try to use such things as body markings, jewelry and pacemaker serial numbers to identify the corpses. Wall charts list amputated limbs, yellow hair and other features on unclaimed bodies. The families of the dead have not seen that room.

Each casket gets a new headstone paid for by the government and is buried under 18 inches of earth. A red rose, paid for by team members out of their own pockets, is placed on each fresh grave.

The first Princeville casket to be reburied was that of Molly Tillery, 62, followed by that of 70-year-old Delzona Dickens. The team hopes to rebury about 20 a day.

Ward Sutton, whose company specializes in moving cemeteries, stood beside each new grave and recited the name of the deceased. For some, that was the only service they got.

The coffins of Ricks' wife, Dorothy, and their son David were gently lowered on cables into newly dug graves beside their other children - John Jr., 5, and Monica, 1, who also died in the 1978 wreck. A backhoe covered them with sandy soil.

The family read the 23rd Psalm and sang "Amazing Grace."

"It means everything to me," said Dorothy Whitehead, Dorothy Ricks' mother. "I'm so glad the government thought enough of these flooded people to put them back in a casket and rebury them."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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