Bonnaroo Music Festival Tragedy


When Nashville, Tennessee, is referred to as Music City, USA, there are some real reasons behind that claim. During the first two weeks of June each year, our fair city, and the surrounding counties extending down to Manchester, put on a show for just about any type of music lover. For the traditional country music fans there is the CMA festival, which packs LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, each night for a star studded spectacle second to none. Nearly 100,000 country fans from all over the world visit the mecca of country music, leaving at the end of the week with memories that will last forever.

As soon as the last note is played on that Sunday night, the stages start coming down in Nashville, and go back up about 60 miles southeast of town in a sleepy little community of Manchester, Tennessee. When Rolling Stone magazine refers to the Bonnaroo Music Festival as one of the “50 greatest moments that changed rock and roll history”, that’s a pretty strong statement! What about GQ Magazine that refers to Bonnaroo as one of the “10 best festivals in the world”? Some pretty strong bragging if you’re from the Volunteer State! No longer is Manchester considered a sleepy little town, not this week at least. Its population grows in one day from 10,142 to 110,142. Millions of dollars to the economy, along with thousands of happy music lovers who just want to have a big time.

This year, however, was marred by a tragedy never before experienced by the event. Just a few minutes after midnight, in the early morning hours of Bonnaroo’s opening, a massive chain reaction of car crashes erupted just north of the Bonnaroo site on I-24. It was caused by an 18 wheeler’s inability to brake in time for a string of cars who had stopped for another fender bender just ahead. Within minutes two tractor trailers, and several cars rammed into each other in rapid succession with the gas tanks of two cars exploding in a fiery ball of twisted metal.

Thanks to the alertness of law enforcement officials, who were already at the scene, the fire was quickly extinguished on the first car, and the occupants were able to be saved. The second car was not so fortunate.

The decedents were removed from the wreckage and transported to our facility, where positive identification could be attempted. This time, no fingerprints, no DNA, only teeth. Once again forensic odontology was called upon to bring closure to the grieving families who so tragically lost their loved ones so quickly.

Dr. Mike Cisneros, Associate Forensic Odontologist for our medical examiner’s team was on call and responded quickly to the accident. One of the first steps that happens in a case like this is that the local law enforcement will pull the license plate from the vehicle (if it is readable, the VIN if not) and a call is made to the department of safety of the particular state that the involved car was registered.

With our blinding fast technology, the name, address and phone number to whom the car is registered is often determined within the hour. At that point, local investigators back in the home state make effort to contact next of kin to confirm if the vehicle was being used by the registered owner. Once that determination is made, the family dentist of the suspected decedents is contacted to produce any clinical notes, radiographs, or records that are available. These are called the antemortem records. Dental xrays and clinical chartings of the burned remains are made. These are referred to as the postmortem records. The resilient enamel that teeth are made of refuses to be damaged. Human teeth and their amazing durability remains as our only hope in sorting out the individuality.

Through a process of evaluation of each tooth from both set of records, a comparison is made to positively confirm the identity or not. A traditional autopsy is also conducted (if possible), along with blood toxicology reports to determine if there were any other possible factors that could have played a role in this tragedy.

As bystanders to a tragic event such as this, it gives us rightful cause to pause and realize the precious moments we have on this earth, and how quickly they can be taken away from us. Perhaps the confirmation of the names of these deceased can in some small way bring closure to their families who must be searching for so many unanswered questions.