‘Reverence for the dead, compassion for the living’: Oceanside disaster mortician retires after 22 years


“It’s like you want to bring — not closure, there’s never closure — but certainty for the families of the victims,” said Oceansider Kevin Costigan, who, after serving for 22 years on the Region II Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT, the last 12 as its commander, retired this spring.

By day, he was a funeral director, but when disaster struck, Costigan led a team of professionals who respond to mass-fatality incidents — a classification for a catastrophe in which more deaths occur than local resources can handle — to identify the bodies and return them to their loved ones. Costigan was there for Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as other emergencies.

It all started in Oceanside, where Costigan, 61, was born and raised. He worked in his uncle’s funeral home, and others during his youth, and joined the Oceanside Fire Department in 1975 before eventually entering “the family business,” as Costigan put it, and becoming a state licensed funeral director in 1978, working in Brooklyn. He also became a member of the New York City Transit Police Department in 1981, eventually moving up to lieutenant, and was elected chief of the OFD in 1986 at age, 28, the youngest ever to hold the position.

Then, in July 1996, a Boeing 747-100, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, exploded in midair shortly after takeoff, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean several miles from East Moriches in Suffolk County. All 230 people on board died — it was the third-deadliest aviation accident in U.S. history. After receiving a call while working for the police at the time, Costigan joined DMORT and helped in the aftermath of the explosion.

Whether it was an aviation accident, a natural disaster or a cemetery washout — a situation in which flooding causes buried bodies to surface — DMORT is there when called on to identify the remains.

The team falls under the jurisdiction of the National Disaster Medical System, which is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Members are considered intermittent federal employees — required to be trained and licensed — and must maintain readiness during non-activation periods. According to the NDMS, members of DMORT must have “the utmost reverence for the dead and compassion for the living.”

Costigan was a part of DMORT2, which covers New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. All units, however, respond to where they are needed. The teams are made up of specialists such as forensic dentists and anthropologists, X-ray technicians and funeral directors such as Costigan.

“It’s a big family — it takes a whole bunch of special people to do this,” he added.

As a funeral director on the squad, he was tasked with opening the body bags and handling the remains, taking pictures and documenting what was inside each bag. “Not all were full bodies, or even body parts,” Costigan noted. It was the teeth, DNA and fingerprints that were used to identify the person.

“If you make one mistake, you actually make two, because you misidentified somebody else,” he explained.

Costigan recalled responding to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, where he was dispatched to Mississippi. “Entire communities were obliterated, there was nothing left standing for miles,” he said. Costigan and his team slept in refrigerator trailers — where the bodies were to be stored — because of the extremely hot temperatures.

He also recounted responding to Colgan Air Flight 3407. In February 2009, a Continental Airlines plane crashed into a house in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence Center, killing all 49 on board and the only occupant of the house. Costigan, who had been promoted to commander of DMORT2 in 2006, led his team by processing thousands of body parts, “from fingernails to full bodies,” in just 10 days, identifying 49 of the 50 dead. The remaining victim, a man, was incinerated due to his proximity to a gas line.

But the disaster that took the greatest personal toll on him, he said, was Sept. 11, because he knew many of the people who were missing. “You just couldn’t fathom the enormity of the situation,” Costigan said.

“When he got the call, I didn’t know if he was going to be OK.” Costigan’s wife, Kathy, the administrative officer for DMORT 1, recalled.

He arrived at the medical examiner’s office in Manhattan at noon that day and didn’t return home until Sept. 30. In the calamity, Costigan lost friends and colleagues Kenny Marino, a former OFD and New York Fire Department member, and Kevin Donnelly, an FDNY firefighter and former classmate at Oceanside High School.

When it comes to the work, however, he noted that members of DMORT cannot let their emotions get to them. “If you were to think of [the remains] as people, you would go crazy . . . you treat it as a job,” Costigan said.

Sometimes his work did get to him, however. In October, 1999 when the EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Nantucket Island, killing all 217 on board, Costigan said a father of one of the victims flew over from Egypt to identify his son and, during the interview, said, “This is my beloved son, through whose eyes I have seen the world.”

“That always stuck with me,” Costigan said.

Nonetheless, for decades he stuck with the job, and was awarded a number of times for his service. In 2010 he was given the Thomas J. Shepardson Leadership Award by the NDMS — an honor only bestowed on five other people — and in August, State Sen. Todd Kaminsky presented him with the Senate Liberty Medal, the Senate’s highest civilian honor.

In April, after 40 years as funeral director, 43 as a firefighter, 20 as a police officer and 22 with DMORT, he decided to step aside.

“It was time,” Costigan said, noting that he also wants to spend more time with his family.

“I’ll miss the people,” he said. “I can leave DMORT, but I’ll never lose the memories or the good work we’ve done and the people we’ve helped.”

“I’m very proud of him and all his accomplishments,” Kathy said, “but it’s time for him to relax now and enjoy life.”

“We would do anything for Kevin,” Barbara Salisburg, administrative officer for DMORT 2 since 2009, chimed in.

She said she viewed him not only as her leader and commander, but her mentor and teacher. Salisburg, who recalled how Costigan carried himself during the responses to EgyptAir, Sept. 11 and Buffalo, said he was a true “role model.”

“Just remember why you’re here. You’re here for their families,” she recalled him telling their teammates. Salisburg said that even when Costigan was not on the scene, he was calling members to see how they were doing.

“He had big shoes, and he wore them well. They’re going to be hard to fill,” she said, because his replacement has yet to be selected. “I’d take him back in a heartbeat, and I think most of the team would agree.”