When students first told Kurt Heidinger they had found a human skull, he thought they were joking.
He soon realized they were being serious, so he went over to investigate. That’s when he saw “a whole skeleton right there in the sand,” he told McClatchy News in an email.
The executive director of Massachusetts’ Biocitizen Inc. was on the Connecticut River on Aug. 23 with students and staff, taking advantage of the low water levels.
Students of the Westhampton-based environmental education school read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” then set off to explore areas around the river. Heidinger said he and another student were walking around a small island they refer to as Treasure Island because of all the boat parts and animal bones they find there.
The young boy yelled out that he had found bones, so Heidinger went over to look. A large leg bone was poking out of the ground, he said.
Heidinger didn’t think much of it, assuming it belonged to a moose or a buck, and he told the student they could come back later.
“When we returned we had lunch and the lad begged to go back to the bones,” Heidinger told McClatchy News. “I was busy with other students ... and sent him off with a teacher. ... A few minutes later we heard an uproar, screams and excited wahhs!”
Heidinger said his first thought was the students had been stung by yellowjackets.
“A lad ran up breathlessly, announcing a skull had been found,” Heidinger recalled. “‘Yay,’ I said. ‘That’s very exciting!’ Another boy rushed up saying, it’s a human skull! ‘Yeah right! You guys are pretty funny! Tell me when you find the pirate’s treasure!’”
It turns out the students had found an entire human skeleton.
“Their first reaction was one of exultation, because we find bones all the time and to find human bones was, in some rational way, the most incredible discovery possible,” Heidinger said. “We had been channeling in an innocent way Pirates of Caribbean and now we were actually in the movie.”
The mood shifted, Heidinger said, when they realized the gravity of what they had found. He called the police to tell them about the remains, then the group had a moment of silence.
He said he reminded students that the person had loved ones who might gain closure from knowing what had happened.
“A much different feeling arose, solemn and serious, but also one of health mixed with a bit of pride that they had done something good for the person whose bones they found, and all the people who loved them,” Heidinger said.
The Northwestern District Attorney’s Office said an investigation is underway, according to an Aug. 28 news release shared with McClatchy News.
Local and state agencies are looking into the death, including police with the cities of Greenfield and Montague as well as the Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit, according to the release.
The medical examiner will work to determine the identity of the person, the DA’s office said.
The next day, Biocitizen staff and students sat in a circle to share their feelings about what had happened, Heidinger said. A parent suggested they create a shrine to the person who had died, so the students gathered jasper and created a dragonfly in tribute.
“Our students, young as they are, were somewhat prepared by all the other walks we’ve taken and bones we’ve found to absorb this deeper humanistic and philosophical awareness, and to place the experience into an existential context that was not frightening, even though it was really weird and unsettling,” Heidinger said.
He said investigators pulled a list of missing persons. He said they told him the person could have died by suicide, but they would prepare for a homicide investigation.
“We all want to see a positive ending to this,” Heindinger said. “The reunion of the person’s remains with their loved ones is exactly that.”