There’s a shared quality in all living creatures called curiosity. Cat’s, dogs, grasshoppers, robins, they all have some form of it though we don’t really understand what the motivation actually is the body-brain chemistry involved. It’s natural and occurs in greater or lesser amounts in individuals as dictated by species, genetic gifts and amplified by upbringing. Curiosity isn’t mere noseyness. There’s a point when this desire to see becomes some sort of sick pathology. So what is this thing that drives people to the scene of disasters, not to offer help, but simply to see, and perhaps even to profit from what they find there? A lot of artists have thought long and hard about this but few answers seem to result.
This account is from William Least-Heat Moon’s PrairyErth. “About three miles southwest of Bazaar (KS) Edward and Arthur Baker were moving cattle on the homeplace (sic) when they heard the distant motors of a plane heading southeast. The noise passed. A few minutes later it returned and seemed now to be moving northwest, this time spluttering and backfiring, but in the low overcast the Bakers could see nothing: a brief silence, a quiet above, then a loud, thudding crash. The cattle jumped and banged into the corral. Edward climbed up on a board fence to try to see better to the west.; from almost above him a long silvery and red object dropped in the slow ziz-zag of a falling slip of paper. The young men grabbed the nearest horses and rode all-out toward where they had seen the silver thing float down behind a treeless ridge. About a mile away they came to it, a piece of aircraft wing – broken cleanly across but otherwise hardly damaged – lying topside up. On it was NC 999E. A half-mile west, in a broad basin on the low ridge lay an incredible tangle of something with a tall, silvery projection like a huge tombstone. They rode fast and came up to the Fokker, heaped past recognition but for the upside-down tail assembly. Gasoline fumes hung thickly, but there was no fire and there had been no explosion.
Edward got off and tied his horse to a fence, and Arthur rode around the wreckage that lay scattered over a hundred yards. They saw four bodies lying outside the plane, the farthest sixty feet away, and they could make out two more men still in the cabin. Although there was little blood, the victims were considerably mutilated and dismembered. Without question the six passengers were dead. Edward started to pick up toms strewn mail but stopped, and his brother rode back to the house, where his father had already called the operator in Bazaar. Sometime after eleven A.M. the Cottonwood ambulance, rolling at ninety five miles an hour down wet and unpaved route 13, made a slow, fishtailing climb over the light covering of snow on the pasture. More countians (Heat-Moon’s term for citizens of the county) arrived and helped pick up letters, gasoline soaked mailbags (a Chicagoan later wrote Bazaar postmaster John Mitchell to ask for a 99E letter to add to his collection of crash mail), and large sums of cash, jewelry and five watches. Others had the grisly task of gathering up bodies and pieces of men in bushel baskets and gunnysacks. When a part-time deputy arrived he became ill and hung back from the mangled mess until his stomach settled.
Wally Evans of Matfield didn’t want to take his Model A coupe into the muddy pastures, but when four big fellows lifted the wheels off the ground so he could put on chains, then all headed out. Later he said, “The bodies was all in pieces. They’d be a shoe with a foot in it. Bodies was strung out – just a windrow of them to the southwest. The aluminum partition between the cabin and the front end where the pilot sat was laying level with the ground – the sign was till up there telling what the pilot’s name was.
By noon, news of the crash had spread over the county, and sightseers rushed out, tearing into the muddy pasture. The word came that one of the victims was Knute Rockne, and from then on, the crowed rolled in from a half-dozen counties: by early afternoon five planes had landed nearby, their pilots huddled and holding their leather helmets and guessing at the cause of the crash; one veteran of World War I said he’d never seen such mutilation on this side of the Atlantic. In the whine of stuck car wheels and the drone of circling planes, cowhands sat astride their horses and watched people from Wichita slog their Fords into the prairie and then get out and hurry toward the crash. They tore down the three barbed-wire fences, scrambled in the rocky mud for keepsakes, milled about the wreckage, photographed each other standing and waving and smiling beside it as if it were the Washington Monument; they were picking up every loose thing, all the while getting in the way of men trying to gather up body parts. Stationed in the middle of the wreckage to protect it, the deputy sheriff (having recovered his stomach) was busy tearing out the Fokker’s radio for a memento; John Happer’s tennis racket and golf balls were long gone. The only things people handed over were letters. One man said later, “Rockne’s pocketbook was laying there just like you’d taken a corn knife on a stump and cut it right in two. There was a one dollar bill like that, just half of it.” Years afterward, former state senator Wayne Rogler told of a fellow walking around with a passenger’s ear, and when a friend admired it, he pulled out his knife and sliced in half to share.
Authorities stopped a boy carrying away a carburetor and looked at it, told him he had a swell find an let him go off with it. Then bigger things began disappearing: a man even rolled one of the huge flattened tires over the wet fields to Matfield. The eager crowd shredded the cabin fabric beyond what the crash had done and stuff pieces in their pockets. Finally, like a great carcass scavenged by hyenas, only a skeletal plane remained; the broken frame, engines, tail assembly, the fallen wing. Harv Cox, who drove the speeding ambulance out and returned with Rockne’s body, said later, “I’ve never seen people to so crazy in my life.” When Cox died a half century later, he still had not returned to the site; he said, “I got my fill of it that day.”
The passengers were: H.J. Christen (interior design); Spencer Goldthwaite (advertising), John Happer (sporting goods), Waldo Miller (insurance), C.A. Robrecht (produce), and Knute Rockne (football). I won’t add the names of the two pilots.
So the first responders and socially responsible neighbors responded quickly, as they always do, and then came the horde of human bozos to pick over the mess like vultures.
What is it in some people that brings out this behavior? It’s not uncommon. We see it at wrecks on highways, house fires and so forth. Good fodder for writers but inexplicable to a lot of folks.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It leads us to invention and improvement and understanding, but there becomes a point when curiosity is no longer curiosity and though people may claim that as a motivating force, they are fooling only themselves.
I understand cops and soldiers running toward the sound of the guns and first responders and earnest Samaritans hurrying to the scenes of disasters, both manmade and natural, but I don’t understand ghouls. Maybe that’s why vampire crap is so popular in recent years? Sick, sick, sick.
Makes one think that mankind is not changing very quickly or changing in very positive and uplifting directions. Sad.