Personal effects What recovering the dead teaches me about caring for the living

Robert A. Jensen

Book - 2021

"The owner of the world's leading disaster management company chronicles the unseen world behind the yellow tape, and explores what it means to be human after a lifetime of caring for the dead. You have seen Robert A. Jensen-you just never knew it. As the owner of the world's largest disaster management company, he has spent most of his adult life responding to tragedy. From the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, the Bali bombings, the 2004 South Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina to the 2010 Haitian Earthquake and the Grenfell Tower Fire, Jensen is at the practical level of international incidents, assisting with the recovery of bodies, identifying victims, and repatriating and returning their personal effects to the surviving famil...y members. He is also, crucially, involved in the emotional recovery that comes after a disaster: helping guide the families, governments, and companies involved, telling them what to expect and managing the unmanageable. As he puts it, "If journalists write the first rough draft of history, I put the punctuation on the past." Personal Effects is an unsparing, up-close look at the difficult work Jensen does behind the yellow tape and the lessons he learned there. The chronicle of an almost impossible and grim job, Personal Effects also tells Jensen's own story, how he came to this line of work, how he manages the chaos that is his life, and the personal toll the repeated exposure to mass death brings, in becoming what GQ called "the best at the worst job in the world." A rare glimpse into a world we all see but many know nothing about, Personal Effects is an inspiring and heartwarming story of survival and the importance of moving forward. Jensen allows his readers to see over his shoulder as he responds to disaster sites, uncovers the deceased, and cares for families to show how a strong will and desire to do good can become a path through the worst the world can throw at us"--

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New York : St. Martin's Press 2021.
Main Author
Robert A. Jensen (author)
Other Authors
James Hider (author)
First edition
Item Description
Includes index.
Physical Description
viii, 294 pages ; 22 cm
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Opposite of Meaning
  • 2. Luck and Time
  • 3. What Kind of a Person?
  • 4. This Is Haiti
  • 5. What's in a Name?
  • 6. Lost and Found
  • 7. Picking Up the Pieces
  • 8. Sunken Treasure
  • 9. The Terrorist Attacks
  • 10. Death and Truth
  • 11. Preparing for the Next (But Not the Last) Disaster
  • 12. Known Only to God-And Science
  • 13. Mass Graves and Conflict Zones
  • 14. The Science and Emotion of Identification
  • 15. DNA and the CSI Effect
  • 16. A World of Pain
  • 17. The Wave
  • 18. Another Day at the Office
  • 19. London's Towering Inferno
  • 20. The Resilience Factor
  • 21. What I've Collected
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

Disasters call to mind clean-up efforts like debris removal, but human bodies are often involved, and they may not be intact. Someone has to do the hard job of identifying remains and personal effects and then contacting loved ones, and Jensen is such a person. His book opens with the Oklahoma City bombing, one of his earliest assignments, and he has been around the world since, covering 9/11, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many other disasters. Jensen details how the smallest body fragments are DNA-tested and returned to grieving family members whenever possible. He has learned to be sensitive to the ways that various cultures and religions choose to lay their dead to rest, and he has been a level-headed go-between in many tense situations when a country's officials would prefer to withhold information. While his work (and this book) may not be for the faint-hearted, it is a fascinating look into a necessary and sobering profession, and the author approaches his work with equal amounts of professionalism and warmth.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this gripping albeit grisly memoir, Jensen (Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents) shares highlights of his career in disaster response. Now the chairman and owner of Kenyon International Emergency Services, Jensen's first experience with "sudden, large-scale catastrophes" came in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, where he served in the U.S. Army's mortuary unit. He describes the painstaking work of trying to match severed body parts, and explains how disaster response entails managing the needs of victims, their families, and the investigation. Gruesome details and corporate indifference abound as Jensen recounts disasters such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the Grenfell Tower fire in London. He advises readers to take good care of key documents, including birth and marriage certificates, that are necessary to settle an estate, but claims not to reflect much on the fleeting nature of life or his own need to "bring order to chaos." Readers with a strong stomach will be fascinated by this up-close look at what it means to take charge of the response to an unspeakable tragedy. (Sept.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Have you ever thought about what happens after a mass fatality event? How do the dead get recovered and counted? How do victims' personal effects, like a pair of glasses, reach their family? In his first book, Jensen, who takes care of these details as a profession, offers his experiences, lessons he's learned, and an interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse into a grim but necessary world. Putting sensitivity and privacy first and foremost, Jensen has written an unparalleled memoir about the aftermath of tragedies like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017, and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, all of which he has dealt with as the owner of the world's largest disaster management company. Readers are invited to see every aspect of such events, including recovery of bodies, family assistance, and prolific and painstaking research. He shares best practices for post-disaster management and insights about specific events and mass fatalities in general. VERDICT Jensen's thoroughly engrossing personal account invites readers to witness an almost unseen arena of disaster management.--Laura Hiatt, Fort Collins, CO

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