The five people impeding the timely completion of a state-of-the-art, $11 million fire and rescue station at Baltimore-Washington International Airport shouldn't have posed much of an obstacle. After all, they're dead.
But when construction crews accidentally unearthed the remains of the bodies in late January, they raised myriad questions and legal hurdles for development and airport officials, who are scrambling to determine exactly what they found -- and whether more bodies lie beneath the airport tarmac.
"We've never made a discovery like this," said Karen R. Black, a spokeswoman for BWI. And after five weeks of investigation, digging and collecting, she concedes, "We're still not sure what we have out there."
The skeletal remains were unearthed Jan. 30 by the Columbia Construction Co., which was digging up land south of the runways to prepare for construction of the fire and rescue station.
Work was halted, and officials, concerned they had stumbled on a homicide scene, called police.
But on closer inspection, Maryland Transportation Authority police found bones, tattered pieces of clothing and what looked like casket pieces, said MTA spokesman Lori Vidil. She could not say how far the bodies were buried below the surface.
"The investigators came out and decided that it was not a crime scene," Vidil said. "Instead, it appeared to be a very old, unmarked grave site. That was a relief."
It has created a different kind of headache for officials, however, as they try to determine who was buried near Runway 10/28.
"First we had to have a police investigation," Black said. "Then we had to do a property records check to see if there were any known grave sites on the land. When we couldn't find one, we had to commission an archaeological study to see exactly how big the burial site was."
Thus far, officials from the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office, the Anne Arundel Department of Health, the state Office of Vital Records and Statistics and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have been called on to assist in the case.
An undertaker still must remove the remains, store them and attempt to identify them. Any kin will be notified after identification, and attempts will be made to find a suitable burial site.
And until all the remains are found and removed and the site is approved for construction again, crews are not allowed to step on the police-taped site. Black said it is uncertain when the area will be unsealed.
All this, according to the man who probably knows best, for five people "who couldn't even afford their own grave plots."
Charles Geschwilm, 67, the soft-spoken caretaker of Friendship Cemetery, said he was not surprised by the discovery of bodies. His cemetery is on airport property about 130 feet south of the unidentified remains, and he said the bodies may have come from paupers' graves dating to the 1930s, when his grandfather ran the cemetery and the land was dotted with farmhouses, not runways.
"In my time, I don't remember any funerals or burials in that area, but I know there were some unmarked graves," said Geschwilm, whose grandfather donated the original land to nearby Friendship Church in 1907.
"When farmers couldn't afford a funeral or a plot of ground, they'd usually get buried in back, in a potter's field," Geschwilm said. "Nobody would give them much thought, since they were poor or maybe unknown. Kind of interesting they're finally getting a lot of notice."
When Baltimore opened Friendship Airport in June 1950, the city wanted to relocate all the graves in the area, but local church members fought the proposal in court. Baltimore sold the airport to the state 22 years later.
The facility opened as Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 1972, and in 1994 became one of the nation's fastest-growing airports. Several family plots were located adjacent to the site, as was a Russian Orthodox cemetery, Geschwilm said.
"The airport covers 3,500 acres," he said. "That could cover a lot of family graves. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot more bodies."