Sunday, June 3, 2001
Of The Post and Courier staff
As a child, Jamie Downs and his brother would explore the Broad Street basement
museum dedicated to the H.L. Hunley, where they were mesmerized by the sight of
nine mannequins sitting inside the life-size model of the lost Confederate
Downs, claustrophobic even then, thought it amazing that anyone could - or would - get inside something that small.
"It took my breath away," he recalled this week.
He never forgot that display, the look of those mannequins. Now, he finds himself working on the real thing.
Dr. Jamie Downs, the director/chief medical examiner for the state of Alabama, has returned to his childhood home to help scientists excavating the Hunley solve the mystery of why the submarine sank and what happened to the crew.
It's hard to tell which is more exciting to him about the assignment - being part of an international team filled with experts from a dozen fields, or sharing the volunteer work with his brother, John, a local businessman who has helped scientists sift through the sub's interior.
"Thirty years later, and we're able to share that bond again," he says.
His trip from his childhood home at 38 Church St. has been a long one.
After high school at Porter-Gaud, Downs was determined to be an orthopedic surgeon. He got an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from the University of Georgia, a family tradition. Then he came back to Charleston.
He got his doctor of medicine degree from the Medical University of South Carolina in 1988, but was growing wary of his chosen profession. He couldn't bear the thought of being away from his family - wife Heather, and four children now - as much as being a surgeon would require. So, with the nudge of local friends, including former Charleston County medical examiner Sandra Conradi, Downs started pursuing other options. He began studying forensic pathology and clinical pathology.
The science agreed with him. Since he was a child, Downs had been fascinated with how things were put together, how things work. He liked understanding how things had come about.
"You have the opportunity to understand what happened to somebody," he says of his job. "People ask me if it's not depressing work. But the worst thing that can happen to them has already happened. What you try to do is understand what happened, for the family, for the community at large."
For five years, from 1989 to 1994, Downs worked as a medical examiner in Charleston. And then Alabama called.
For four years, Downs served as a state medical examiner in Mobile, the town where the Hunley was built. The port town had kept the memory of the lost submarine alive just like Charleston, and felt a close kinship with the crew. Lt. George Dixon was living in Mobile before he came to Charleston to take over the Hunley's operations.
Downs, it seemed, was destined to live in the shadow of the Hunley all his life.
When the discovery of the fish-boat was announced in 1995, Downs called Sen. Glenn McConnell, installed as chairman of the Hunley Commission, and offered his services. McConnell, aware of the budget constraints of the project, gladly accepted the professional services.
By the time the Hunley was raised and the exploration of its interior began, Downs had become a national spokesman and expert on forensic sciences. He had testified before Congress on the issue, served on a dozen boards, written five chapters for the FBI's manual on managing death investigations. His brother, John, calls him the classic "local boy done good."
Given Alabama's close ties to the Hunley, it was not hard to get permission from the state's governor to donate some of Downs' time to help with the investigation.
The answers will not come overnight. Downs says if he's learned anything in forensic sciences, it is patience. The detective work of a medical examiner is not always finished in the neat, tidy 52 minutes of the television show C.S.I. It is, Downs understates, a lengthy process that only begins with the autopsy.
Out of respect for the crew, Downs and other scientists on the project, including Dr. Doug Owsley from the Smithsonian Institute, have been careful not to comment too much about the Hunley remains. But Downs does say the level of preservation of the crew is amazing, as evidenced by the presence of brain tissue in the skulls of the men and the discovery of the most minute, fragile bones in the human body.
Some of the archaeologists were puzzled when they discovered those bones - they don't normally find them on a dig.
Downs says he is confident, with the team of experts assembled on the Hunley project, that if there is the answer to what happened in the submarine's final moments are there, they will be found.
And that, he says, is the whole point. "To let the crew, at last, have their peace."