The State Department has issued a rare public apology to the families of two young Washingtonians who were killed in the Bahamas in a car-bus crash on Christmas Day and then, the families say, almost buried there as paupers because of State's inability to locate the relatives.
One of the crash victims, attorney Paul Barton Brown, had his driver's license, his D.C. bar association membership card, his law firm's name and other identification in his wallet, but State Department officials nonetheless took 11 days instead of the usual one to inform relatives in the United States of his death.
Brown, 28, and his fiance, Gale Jackler, a 21-year-old employe of the National Conference of State Legislatures, were killed in Freeport when they and another couple drove through a stop sign and collided with a large bus, which skidded a short distance and then overturned on the couples' Volkwagon, according to Bahamian police. The second American couple was killed as well, but their relatives were located promptly, the State Department said.
"It's enough to find out that your 21-year-old daughter is dead," said Benice Jackler from her home in Ardsley, N.Y, who was told of the tragic accident by a clerk at the Freeport hotel where Brown and Jackler were staying. "But to find out that way is incredible."
The local police contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, which notified a special office in the State Department in Washington that is concerned with Americans killed abroad. That office, entrusted with locating next-of-kin, also takes care of recovering the bodies of U.S. citizens who die overseas, usually within 24 hours.
"The principal problem," State Department spokesman James Webb said, "was that neither Mr. Brown nor any of his companions had U.S. passports with them. That made notification of next-of-kin difficult. u
However, according to records produced by Brown's family and confirmed by the State Department, Brown's wallet contained his driver's license with his address, a District of Columbia Bar Association membership card, a social security card with Brown's parents' Kansas City address written on it, two credit cards, and a sheet of paper on which the name of Brown's law firm, Hogan and Hartson, was printed, and which contained numerous telephone numbers.
"A village idiot could have figured out the wisdom of contacting Brown's law office during the daytime hours," said Brown's uncle, Bernard H. Brown, who lives in Kansas City. "All of this extra heartache could have been avoided."
The State Department says that numerous efforts were made to locate Brown's relatives and employer, with no luck. However, no explanation has been given as to why no phone call was made to Hogan and Hartson, one of Washington's best-known law firms.
According to Webb, State Department officials asked D.C. police to visit the residence listed on Brown's driver's license. The police did, and reported that no one was there. The State Department says it called all the phone numbers found on the body, but reached no one who knew how to contact Brown's family. Finally, officials called a bank which apparently has issued one of Brown's credit cards. The bank was asked to pull his application, and through it, Brown's parents were located on Jan. 5, 11 days after the accident.
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Freeport said that "everything was a blank wall. Tourists usually don't go with the idea they're going to die, so they don't carry items of identification with them. It seems to me they [the State Department] did as much as they could."
Nonetheless, the Brown and Jackler families said they were told by authorities in the Bahamas that because of the delays in locating them, the unclaimed bodies were about to be buried in a paupers' graveyard. The State Department has denied that this would have occurred.
State Department officials say that about 9.8 million Americans traveled overseas last year, and some 10,000 died around the world -- from heart attacks, muggings, disease, automobile, airplane or boat accidents. Twelve Americans died overseas on Christmas Day.
"At no point in this case was no one paying attention," Webb said. "We do apologize it took so long. I feel that the department . . . made every effort. Efforts were made immediately and right up to the time when they [the victims' kin] were eventually notified . . . We didn't just try the first day and when we didn't get an answer, let it drop.
"There's almost never enough information when you have to deal with an emergency. This is why we always encourage Americans to travel with passports when they leave the United States," Webb said.
Bernard Brown, Brown's uncle, said he feels the State Department aspology is "too little, too late."
Brown, a native of Kansas City, Mo., was an associate with Hogan and Hartson for two years. His late mother, Esther Brown, was an early civil rights activist in the desegregation battles of the 1950s, and is credited with encouraging the plaintiff to initiate the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka desegregation lawsuit. The Brown in the well-known case was not related.
Jackler had completed her sophomore year at Brandeis University in 1979, when she took a sabbatical to work on the presidential campaign of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). At the time of her death, she was an executive assistant with the state legislatures group.