LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
Never before had Airman 1st Class Brandon Porter seen the kind of destruction left by a tornado after it ripped through a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, in December 2021, starting a fire that killed eight people.
As a member of the Kentucky Air National Guard's Fatality Search and Recovery Team, it was Porter’s job — along with the rest of the team that deployed with him — to sift through what was left of the factory and locate those who did not survive the catastrophic event.
The FSRT is a nationally certified team consisting of 10 enlisted Airmen and one officer who specialize in the recovery of human remains following a mass-fatality incident, according to Master Sgt. Kevin Woodard, the team’s Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge.
“When we’re called on to assist in a natural disaster or catastrophic event, we are basically acting as an extension of the local coroners,” explained Woodard, who has been a member of the team since its inception in 2009. “That can involve recovering fatalities, storing and transferring remains, or delivering DNA samples to local laboratories.
“The team constantly trains for these events and is required to be nationally certified every three years in recovery methods and other specialized procedures,” he added.
Barely out of Air Force basic training and technical school, Porter was a new member of the 123rd Airlift Wing in Louisville, where the FSRT is based, when he was asked to become a member of the team. The call to deploy to the Mayfield disaster site soon followed.
“I was excited, like nervous excitement of not knowing the unknown,” Porter said. “I had never seen the damage of what a tornado could really do. I was surprised and knew how serious the situation was when we got there.”
Accompanied by team members Woodard, Master Sgt. Aaron Foote and Tech. Sgt. Raymond Ray, the group methodically began their mission searching through the rubble of the austere environment. Not long after, Porter located his first fatality.
“All I could think about was, ‘I’m glad you’re found. Now we can bring you home,’” Porter softly recalled. “It’s a horrible thing that has happened, but as long as we do our part and help a family get their family member back, I’m glad that who was found, was found.”
The events in Mayfield offered the FSRT an opportunity to become more engaged across Kentucky. They were soon invited to attend the Kentucky Coroners Association Conference to explain more about their capabilities. That led to increased awareness and a key role in responding to the devastating floods that struck Eastern Kentucky earlier this summer, claiming more than 35 lives.
“Our efforts were recognized in Mayfield by local emergency response groups, and we were asked to attend the conference so that more Kentucky agencies could get to know us,” explained Woodard, who spoke at the event.
“Through the contacts we made there, we got the call to assist in the recent flooding events in Eastern Kentucky.”
For this mission, the FSRT provided a different kind of assistance than they did in Mayfield.
“There were already many search-and-recovery teams out there when we arrived, so for this assignment, we adjusted to what the coroners needed,” Woodard said. “Anything that the coroner needed, such as cold storage, tagging remains, delivering these to wherever we were directed to go — we were there to assist.
“At one point, there was so much going on and the coroners needed pictures to be taken,” Woodard continued, “so we assisted with that and any other tasks they had for us.”
The missions that the FSRT undertook in Mayfield and Eastern Kentucky were challenging, Woodard said, and they’ve had a profound emotional impact on Porter and the team.
“This is a tough job, and not everyone is cut out for it,” he noted. “And that’s understandable. At the end of the day in Mayfield, we all stayed to together in the same room just to talk and support each other. We didn’t have to, but staying together helps us through that experience.”
That support and the strong bond within the team is what drew Porter to volunteering to become a part of it.
“When I first arrived to the wing, I was asked to join the team. Going into it, I was scared because I didn’t know what it was,” Porter explained. “After asking around about it, I was told that it was hard work, but the work is rewarding. I was all in.”
For Porter, being a part of the FSRT and completing the missions in Mayfield and Eastern Kentucky have given him a sense of satisfaction for a job well done.
“I feel accomplished for the team because we worked hard and know that what we did that day helped someone.”