Thursday, February 19, 2015

Volunteers find more WWII plane parts, possible human remains in Osteen, Florida

Torey of K-9 Search & Rescue of Orange City works the Osteen crash site of a World War II bomber. The golden retriever is trained to sit if she detects the scent of human remains.
News-Journal/ANTHONY DeFEO

OSTEEN — Volunteers with metal detectors and cadaver dogs uncovered more clues Thursday in the mystery surrounding what happened to a World War II-era dive bomber that crashed in Osteen some 70 years ago, including dozens of items likely linked to the crash and possible human remains.

For a second day, archaeologist George Schwarz of the U.S. Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., coordinated a volunteer search effort for an ill-fated Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless, which likely crashed after taking off from what was then the DeLand Naval Air Station.

The search area includes a debris field spanning more than 200 yards across multiple properties, most of which are densely forested. Despite the rough terrain, a team of cadaver dogs from K-9 Search & Rescue of Orange City focused on a spot surrounded by palmetto bushes, possibly indicating human remains on the site.

By mid-afternoon, volunteers from the Central Florida Metal Detecting Club also managed to turn up hundreds of items buried in the search area, 30 or 40 of which are likely related to the crash, Schwarz said.

Still, no parts have been found containing a crucial piece of information — known in Navy parlance as a “bureau number,” a unique identification number for the plane.

The cadaver dogs are trained exclusively to sniff out human remains. They ignore scents of other animal carcasses, said Pat Totillo, a volunteer and trainer with K-9 Search & Rescue of Orange City.

“It's like looking for a needle in a haystack,” she said. “We have a plane and we're finding tiny pieces of a huge object, so you can imagine what it's like trying to find a person, which is so small compared to a plane.”

Totillo said while the dogs each focused on one particular area, it's not certain that human remains are buried there — or related to the plane crash.

“It tells us we need to further investigate it,” she said. “At this point, we're looking for something so minute — I mean, these dogs will pick up on a tooth.”

Added Schwarz, “We don't really have enough information to say one way or another. The dogs, they were excited about one particular area, but we did a preliminary investigation of that spot and didn't find anything. So we're going to go back and look a little bit more, but it's not conclusive there's anything there yet.”

Schwarz said he and his team, along with the volunteers, had covered a quarter of the site by mid-afternoon and were looking to sweep half of it by the end of Thursday.

The crews will return Friday to examine the other half of the area, before making a short announcement on their findings.

The saga of the plane began late last year, when Osteen resident Rodney Thomas contacted the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum about plane parts he'd been finding on and around his property for three years. The museum, in turn, contacted the Navy.

The DeLand Naval Air Station, now the municipal airport, trained pilots in the SBD-5 planes during WWII.

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