VAN BUREN – James Ouellette, a local funeral director, never had spent the holidays away from his family, until Christmas 2001 and New Year’s Day 2002.
When those recent holidays arrived, Ouellette, 46, was doing a job he has done for 27 years in northern Maine. But his work took him to New York City, to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He had volunteered to help in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy, and his two-week shift was from Dec. 23 to Jan. 7.
“It was hard being away from my family during the holidays,” Ouellette said Saturday while talking about his stint in New York. “In my 46 years, I have never been away from Van Buren during the holidays.
“My family backed me up in the decision to go help,” he said in an interview in his Van Buren office. “We had our Christmas before I left for New York.
“I feel good about having gone,” he said.
Ouellette, who operates the Ouellette-Thibault Funeral Home in Van Buren and the Stimson-Ouellette Funeral Home in Ashland, volunteered his services when the National Funeral Directors Association made a call for volunteers shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.
The NFDA called the day after Thanksgiving asking him for a two-week rotation.
He was able to arrange a continuation of service at his two facilities with the assistance of other Aroostook County funeral directors.
It was deja vu for Ouellette in New York. He had been told to report to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner along the East River. He had worked there in the 1970s, embalming bodies of indigent people found in the city. It was on-the-job training.
Back then Ouellette studied at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City. He graduated Sept. 5, 1975.
“It was the same building,” he said. “The big difference was the security. It was incredible, it was everywhere.”
Ouellette worked with two other funeral directors at the end of the chain of work done in identification of remains. In the two weeks he was there, 30 to 40 individuals who died in the disaster were identified.
It was his job to see to the release of the remains to families and to area funeral directors. He had to see that all the needed paperwork was ready for funeral directors.
The remains were held in huge refrigerated trucks located under tents in Memorial Park, along the East River. City funeral directors picked up the bodies there.
“It was mind-boggling what was going on, because there has never been anything like this before,” he said. “Workers sifted through the rubble from the 16-acre site at ground zero inch by inch.
“Experts working there came from all over the world,” he said. “Positive identifications were being done with dental records, fingerprinting and DNA.”
Experts included anthropologists, pathologists, DNA specialists, the FBI, CIA, and police officers from every department imaginable, Ouellette said. They worked in trailers located along the street where the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is located.
Ouellette said the experts had evaluated nearly 14,000 specimens of human tissue by the time he left New York.
“The victims all died from the same thing,” he said. “The cause of death is ‘homicide, blunt force trauma.’
“The ceremony when a body is found is very moving,” Ouellette said. “Anyone not moved by this would have to be dead themselves.”
He said everyone comes to attention when a body is recovered. The bodies are placed in individual body bags and wrapped in a flag for removal. The flag is donated to the company or division the person worked for, or to the family of the deceased.
“They are all heroes,” Ouellette said.
A hearse bearing the body then would lead a procession from the scene of the World Trade Center to the medical examiner’s office.
He found the city changed from when he studied there.
“People in New York are different now,” he said. “People talk to each other, they are nice to each other.
“Scores of people thanked me for taking time out of my life to help them,” he said. “This happened several times each day. They are all so happy people are helping them.”
While in New York, Ouellette went to ground zero three times.
He said it was an awesome sight to watch the work going on there. Huge machines worked below ground level, going up and down on ramps erected for the purpose. While he was there they found a firetruck 40 feet underground.
There was some irony in the situation for Ouellette. He talked of this situation carefully, remembering the details.
After the Sept. 11 disaster, and before he went to work there Dec. 23, Ouellette traveled to New York City with his daughter and a friend. While there he had picked up a copy of the Oct. 5 New York Daily News. A front page photo showed Ladder Truck Company 118 traveling across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to the World Trade Center after the airplanes hit Sept 11. The twin towers were visible in the background.
The entire crew of the ladder truck, six men, died when the buildings collapsed that day.
While he was working there, two recovered bodies were from the company of six firefighters. Ouellette processed the paperwork and released the remains of firefighters Joey Agnello and Pete Vega to their families.
After he was back home, Ouellette came upon a newspaper story about the two men on the Internet. The two men were buried side by side on a grassy hillside in Brooklyn’s Green Wood Cemetery on Jan. 14.
While the experience was a trying one, from being away from his family to the painful work he did while he was there, Ouellette is proud of being able to do what he did.
“It was all very overwhelming,” he said of the experience. “I would not trade the experience for the world.
“I would do it again,” he said.