Dr. David Grossman is the Herald's Person of the Year
By Anthony Rifilato
Grossman, who is tall and friendly, has practiced in Baldwin for 19 years, and is a graduate of Oceanside High School. He has hobbies like many people: He is an avid scuba diver and a wine enthusiast. At one time he was president of the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce. What many people don't know, however, is that Grossman, 45, has a life that is on standby, a provisional life steeped in chaos. He can be deployed at any moment in the event of an enormous tragedy involving numerous casualties. Grossman, the Herald's 2005 Person of the Year, is just a regular guy who also happens to be a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT. He works as a forensic odontologist, identifying the remains of victims, helping their loved ones claim them. When a disaster changes lives in an instant, Grossman can help bring order to the frantic early hours. He was there in Manhattan in the first weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, and on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina devastated it this summer. "Professionally, his work is impeccable," said John Valdina, a fellow dentist and DMORT member who became friends with Grossman after 9/11. Because what they do is very sensitive and can be emotionally taxing, Valdina said that Grossman helps the team get through the "rough circumstances." "David keeps everyone going," said Valdina. "He brightens up everyone's day." Patients and friends praise his work. "He's a dentist with a heart," said Richard Kessel, chairman of LIPA, who is a close friend and patient of Grossman's. "You have to take your hat off to someone who volunteers to help people, like he did after the hurricane." Grossman says he doesn't want accolades. He praises firemen and policemen. He doesn't look forward to the urgent calls about another tragedy. But if and when they happen, he is ready to volunteer and help. "I have a to-go bag that I keep ready with my uniform and supplies," Grossman said. "You hope the call doesn't come - you hope that your skills won't be needed again." Grossman, who still lives in Oceanside with his wife of five years, Carolyn, and their two daughters (he also has two daughters from a previous marriage), said he felt compelled to give more of himself in 1996, after TWA Flight 800 crashed off the coast of Long Island. He wanted to help families with such an unbearable loss, he explained. He figured he could put his knowledge and skills to good use. "There were victims, and people couldn't bury their loved ones," Grossman said. "There was no closure for them." He became interested in forensic dentistry, began taking courses in forensics and joined numerous organizations, including the American Society of Forensic Odontology. In 2000 he joined DMORT, which is run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And then Sept. 11 happened. Grossman was part of a team that was activated that day, the first time that DMORT was dispatched in New York. "I was with the first dental team that was in the city morgue," he said. There he worked 12-hour shifts for two weeks, alongside fingerprint and DNA experts, among others, building a database of information on the dead. "It's a large team effort," Grossman said. Casual observers may find his work morbid and difficult to discuss, and Grossman admits that it can be an emotionally draining endeavor, especially 9/11. "It's very daunting," he said. "As a surgeon, you learn to separate yourself. You can't be emotional when you're working. It would be like a surgeon crying at the operating table." Grossman added, however, that, for obvious reasons, there was an emotional toll. "Nine-eleven made me a more emotional person," he said. "It arranged people's priorities." After Sept. 11, Grossman thought the worst was behind him. Two months after his work at the city morgue, he took a trip with his wife to the Dominican Republic. They returned to New York, ironically, on Flight 588, which, on its next leg, as Flight 587, destined once again for the D.R., crashed in Far Rockaway shortly after departure. While DMORT was not activated for that tragedy, Grossman volunteered to help nonetheless. "I went back into the city," he recalled. "You always have the option to say no. But if you're trained to do it, who else is going to do it?" After Hurricane Katrina hit, Grossman was at a Mets game on Aug. 31 when he got the call. He grabbed his bag and flew to a FEMA facility in Alabama. From there he took a 10-hour trip to Gulfport, Miss. He was part of a 70-member team that included dentists, pathologists, criminologists and others. When he arrived, he said, he was shocked by the devastation. Most of the deaths that occurred in Gulfport resulted from the 30- to 40-foot tidal surge caused by the hurricane, Grossman explained. To make matters worse, local infrastructure was decimated. Houses were ripped from their foundations; boats were lifted out of marinas and thrown onto local streets. Whereas 9/11 was difficult emotionally, Grossman said, Katrina had its own unique set of challenges. "As far as working conditions go, Katrina was worse," he said. Wearing protective suits to prevent contamination, the team worked out of 18-wheel refrigerated trucks and used DMORT's portable morgue. Team members dug their own latrines and endured the sweltering heat, with mini- mal food and without amenities such as blankets or pillows. Not only was the heat brutal, but there was no electricity or running water, basic things needed to run an operation. "It was pitch black," Grossman recalled. "But I was honored to work under such adverse conditions." Eventually, generators were hooked up and the team converted a dilapidated airport hangar into a fully functional, air-conditioned morgue. Grossman was in Gulfport for two weeks, and he commended fellow team members for their dedication and hard work. "It was an incredible operation," he said. The hardest part about his work, Grossman said, is seeing victims who are children. "You don't want to see children involved," he said. "It's bad enough that there are adults. It was hard." In his everyday life, Grossman also volunteers with the Nassau County and New York City Medical Reserve Corps and teaches at Nassau County Medical Center. This holiday, he is taking a trip to the Caribbean with his wife. Still, the call could come at any time, and he keeps his bag at the ready. Like he said, he could say no, but he doesn't. "To be able to say to a family, 'We found your loved one,'" Grossman said, "that's what drives us to do it."