It could take weeks or even months before the human bones found at TNS Mill, 401 Lee St. in Rockingham, are identified, police said Friday.
Skeletal remains were discovered last week by an amateur photographer and urban explorer, Walt Burlington from Charlotte, who was at the abandoned cotton mill. He said he saw bones and clothing at the bottom of a well.
Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly said he has been in communication with the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office in Chapel Hill about the identification process.
“We talked with Chapel Hill and they’re doing some comparisons,” said Kelly on Friday.
Rockingham Police Department and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office have been going through missing person reports, in hopes of comparing their descriptions to the X-rays of the bones.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple phone calls Friday from the Daily Journal.
“We have two missing person reports that we’re looking at really closely,” said Kelly. “The decomposition of the body gives them a more specific idea of how long ago it occurred.”
Kelly said the N.C. Medical Examiner staff is still working on identification, and a doctor who specializes in bone identification will be evaluating the remains. The Medical Examiner performs autopsies for police and other agencies.
Debbie Tanna, public information officer for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, described the scene the dive team encountered as it recovered the bones found at the mill.
“The water was dark and oily,” said Tanna. “There were rusty pipes in the water and they were not able to see, they had to feel their way around in the water. They were out during daylight hours.”
Tanna couldn’t say for sure if the dive team collected a complete skeleton or not. She said the well was 15 feet deep and one diver stayed up top while the other went down into the water. The diver in the water handed the bones to the back-up person up top.
“We never send a diver in without a back-up person on land,” said Tanna.
She also explained that bones that have been sitting in water for an extended period of time “swell and become buoyant.”
Burlington, who discovered the bones while poking around the mill, said he was too shocked to take a photo of the bones. He saw them when he shined his flashlight down into the water.
“At first I saw some pants and thought maybe it’s somebody’s old clothes they threw down there,” said Burlington. “Then I saw a belt on it and thought, that’s weird. There was a pipe blocking my view so I went to the other side and on top of the pants I saw a rib cage. That’s when it kinda hit me. I didn’t take pictures. The police looked through my camera for any I might have taken.”
— Staff Writer Dawn M. Kurry can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 15, or by email at email@example.com.