The military had been looking for the crew from Spooky 21 ever since it disappeared. Jeffrey Christiano had been waiting his entire life.
Now 49, but only 2 when his father left for South Vietnam, he’d chased his father’s ghost throughout his childhood. He married at age 22, seeking what he’d longed for since his father vanished, but it didn’t last.
“I just wanted to be intact,” he said. “I’d felt a hole in my childhood. I kept trying, and failing, to fill it. I just really wanted my dad.”
Knowing there were many relatives with similar tales, Maves never let himself forget just how high the stakes were.
Spooky 21 vanished two decades before the first DNA “fingerprinting.” By the time the remains arrived in Hawaii, DNA testing had become a routine identification tool. But when the crew disappeared, the entire concept had all been so new. It had only been a 12 years since James Watson and Francis Crick told the world what DNA looked like; essentially, a spiral staircase.
In scientific terms, DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid — is a double helix: tightly coiled, 2-meter-long strands commonly known as the building blocks of life. They carry 3 billion pairs of molecules known as nucleotides and are considered 99.9 percent similar among all humans. Using DNA to identify an individual requires focusing on the 0.1 percent of difference.
The surest identification is made when separate samples of a person’s DNA are compared with each other. But the military didn’t have DNA samples of the Spooky 21 crew. The next best thing is to test the DNA of a person’s children, as they have the greatest genetic chance of carrying the same traits.
Maves’ team arranged for the necessary cheek swabs as it prepared to try to extract DNA from the bone chips. But a big obstacle loomed.
“The report from the field was that the plane was smoking as it fell to earth,” Maves said. “And we could see the chips had been subjected to flames. The evidence of fire was troubling.”
DNA doesn’t normally survive heat more intense than 600 degrees. As the lab tried to recover DNA from the chips, “we estimated the fire to have burned at more than 1,000 degrees,” Maves said.
Still, they had to pursue every option. But it turned out to be fruitless.
The official entry in the Spooky 21 case file stated: “No DNA possible due to size and conditions.”
Without DNA, the JPAC identification team was down to one final shot at identifying at least one crew member: the broken tooth.
Nothing from Spooky 21, it seemed, had survived intact. The roots of the tooth, unique enough to help in identification by themselves, were missing. Some bow, some splay, and most are different sizes.
Investigators did have the crown, however, the top of a “left maxillary first molar,” from the upper left side of someone’s mouth. It’s the first one, and crowns, like roots, can be equally unique and aid in identifications. The top of a tooth is like a landscape, with distinct ridges, peaks and valleys; not unlike the landscape that had swallowed up Spooky 21.
Maves had the dental X-rays for each member of the crew. But his job suddenly became easier when he realized that he didn’t have to bother comparing the records for five of them, because one crew member was missing his first left upper molar and four others had fillings in theirs.