He divides the ground into a grid and calls for the dig to start on what he deems the most likely resting place for the lost Marine — a patch of ground between the chopper’s rotors and carriage.
But before the digging can begin, Petty Officer Elizabeth Mongkhonvilay, 24, from Emporia, Kan., talks with the villagers to make sure they’re at ease with what’s going on.
They have been recruited by their communist central government and the village chief, but they insist on a short spiritual ceremony before the digging for human remains begins.
“We’re looking for bones, and bones that have been at home here for a long time,” she explains. “Before they could touch a screen, or a shovel, they had to make peace with the dead.”
The dig is painstaking. Each shovel scrapes less than an inch deeper than the last, as dozens of black buckets are slowly filled with the dirt. Eventually, they’ll dig down about a foot. The villagers form a bucket line and rush the dirt uphill and over to a series of screens to filter out anything out of the ordinary and possibly important.
Passalacqua looks over what the screens are catching: sticks, rocks, a few bullet casings. But there are a few scraps of fabric that could have come from a survival vest, or might simply be long decayed debris from inside the chopper.
He reaches into a screen and picks out a small piece to study. Hard to tell if it’s rock, wood or even bone.
“It won’t likely be large pieces,” he says of the search for bones. “Sometimes you get lucky, and a body is buried by villagers and you find an entire skeleton. But these men died in a war, and often far from anyone.”
What Passalacqua decides is worth a closer examination will be shipped back to Hawaii. On a day when the contents of hundreds of buckets are screened, the material worth further review would barely fill one.
“It’s not fast,” Passalacqua explains. “We have to stay focused.”
“Not fast” is an apt description of the hunt for Spooky 21.
On June 13, 2011, what the Spooky search team uncovered in Laos, in a dig similar to the search for the Marine who died in the helicopter fire, arrived at the lab in Hawaii, and the question on the fate of the six crewmen became simple:
After 46 years missing, 16 years of searching the site and a decade of digging, had JPAC teams found enough to officially bring the crew home?