7 months after she disappeared, mom's remains found at crash site
A forensic anthropology team rappelled 150 feet to the W Road on Saturday afternoon, carrying brown paper bags with what are believed to be Gail Palmgren's remains.
The scattered skeletal remains, collected close to where Palmgren's Jeep Rubicon lay smashed, will be taken to the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility, commonly known as the Body Farm. Experts will reconstruct the skeleton and confirm Palmgren's identity through DNA and dental records, said Sheriff Jim Hammond. It could be next week before the identity is confirmed.
The team had to map, tag and photograph the area before moving the bones.
Officials believe Palmgren's Jeep veered off East Brow Road and dropped hundreds of feet off a precipice. It rested there for seven months, until the leaves fell and aerial crews spotted it Thursday.
Sunday, investigators are expected to remove Palmgren's crimson Jeep.
Authorities decided against using a military helicopter to lift out the vehicle because it is too close to the bluff to be safe.
Hammond said Doug Yates Towing and Recovery Services made an assessment of the Jeep and its location. The heavy-duty wrecker service often takes on involved projects such as uprighting overturned loaded tractor-trailers, according to its website. Yates could not be reached for comment Saturday.
"They are telling us they can do it. In the morning, we'll start that phase. We want to get the vehicle to assist us in our investigation," said Hamilton County Capt. Bill Johnson.
"It's going to be more of a block-and-tackle to lower it down without causing any more damage than what it has already been caused," Johnson said.
Investigators are trying to process the scene before up to 3 inches of rain set in.
"The rain may delay us. We're watching the weather. We would really like to recover the vehicle as soon as we can," Johnson said.
Palmgren disappeared April 30 after driving her children from the family's lake house in Wetumpka, Ala., and dropping them off at their home in Signal Mountain.
On Friday her husband, Matthew Palmgren, issued a statement through his attorneys, Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss.
"It is with great sadness and profound loss that Matthew Palmgren, the Palmgren children and entire family come to terms with this tragic news. For seven months, Matthew Palmgren has assisted authorities in the disappearance of his wife, and he continues to cooperate in the aftermath of this missing person's investigation. ... As difficult as today's news is for everyone in the Palmgren family, Matthew Palmgren wishes to thank the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Signal Mountain Police Department, all emergency services, and all other law enforcement and volunteers who assisted in the search for Gail Palmgren."
While many questions remain about the crash, some community members are concerned about the lack of barriers in places in the 1400 block of East Brow Road.
East Brow hugs the bluff for four miles, extending from North Palisades Drive in the town of Signal Mountain into the town limits of Walden before reaching the W Road. Notorious for its treacherous ledges and cherished for its valley vistas, the road frequently verges a yard or two shy of sheer cliffs.
There is no consistent barrier system along the ledges of North Palisades and East Brow on the Signal Mountain or Walden side. Along much of the roadway, they aren't needed: There are generous shoulders, lines of trees and even houses between the road and the cliffs.
Some of the drop-offs are blocked by guardrails, and one escarpment on the Walden side is guarded by a low, 200-foot stone wall. But there are plenty of spots where only a few feet of grass separate cars from sky.
"It's really scary to drive if you've never been up there," said Elizabeth Aikens, who was mayor of the town of Walden from 1996 to 2002. "I have had people come here and say they will never come back because of the height."
But residents say accidents are rare, and that a car plunging over the side is virtually unheard of.
"Even when it's snowy and foggy, you really don't see accidents on this road," said Wendi Lyness, who has lived on the mountain 20 years.
The speed limit on East Brow is a cautious 30 mph on the Walden side, where Palmgren went off the road. But people accustomed to the terrain frequently go faster, residents say.
"People drive very fast down the road. It's very easy to get comfortable with it if you live up here," said Diane Helton, who lives a few houses from the area where the Jeep left the road. "But when it's rainy or foggy, it can be scary. I can't see to the end of my driveway sometimes."
The spot where Palmgren's Jeep went off the road was blocked by several boulders, including a 100-pound rock that a neighbor noticed months ago was missing, sheriff's officials said.
Crews found the boulder resting near the Jeep.
Safety vs. views
Bill Cotter said he believes more barriers should be built along the road.
Cotter was an alderman in the early 1990s when the board voted to build the stone wall. There was a steep drop-off, and officials were concerned about safety.
But so many residents complained about the wall obstructing their view that the board decided not to build any more barriers, Cotter said.
"They wanted beauty and not safety," Cotter said "Everyone was saying, 'No one had ever driven off the ledge.'"
Most homes lining East Brow have been built only in the last 20 years. The majestic views of Chattanooga's downtown, the river and Lookout Mountain make for prime real estate.
Helton said there are several spots along East Brow Road that still make her wary, but she said the area where Palmgren's Jeep went over has never been one of them.