Remains confirmed as Gail Palmgren, Jeep removed from Signal Mountain crash site

Remains confirmed as Gail Palmgren, Jeep removed from Signal Mountain crash site

December 6th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

Members of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office assist emergency personnel as they lower the Jeep Rubicon that belonged to Signal Mountain mother Gail Palmgren along the W Road on Monday.

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

Gail Palmgren

Gail Palmgren

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

The crimson Jeep Rubicon is now at the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office crime lab where traffic investigators will try to learn why 44-year-old Gail Palmgren veered over a cliff on Signal Mountain.

Nearly a week ago, Palmgren's Jeep was found during an aerial search and on Monday, her vehicle was removed from the side of the mountain.

The same day, a team from the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility, commonly known as the Body Farm, used dental records to confirm that the remains found scattered around the vehicle were hers.

Investigators will fully examine the vehicle, trying to reconstruct the sequence of events that caused Palmgren to veer off East Brow Road about 12:25 p.m. on April 30, the last day she was seen alive. They will try to determine if a mechanical malfunction was involved in the wreck.

Palmgren's Jeep hit a boulder at the top of the mountain before going off the edge, authorities have said. The boulder, weighing about 435 pounds, also was taken off the mountain and will be included in the investigation.

On Monday, it was unclear how long the investigation would take.

Over the course of about an hour Monday, the Jeep crept down the mountain foot by foot, guided by a team of rappelers. Guided by heavy-duty cables secured around two oak trees -- one that the wrecked Jeep was resting against, the other growing at the edge of the W Road.

When it finally was pulled down to the roadway, the Jeep's hard roof was ripped away, the windshield smashed into the vehicle, and the rear crunched toward the front seats. Authorities said the damage to the vehicle showed that the force of impact was three times what it usually takes to kill someone.

Tears welled up in the eyes of Palmgren's friend, Arlene Durham, as she watched the wreckage slowly make its way through the cleared path, over brush and rocks. Loose rocks tumbled down and one of the tires with the cover, "Life is Good," came rolling down the 300-foot drop.

"I just had to be here. I had to see this. I needed it for closure," Durham told Diane Nichols, Palmgren's sister, who lives in New York but came to Chattanooga after the Jeep was discovered.

Investigators tried not to damage the Jeep any more than what occurred when it plunged off the side of Signal Mountain, tumbling over two bluffs and falling about 350 feet before coming to a rest on a steep slope about 300 feet from the W Road.

"We wanted to be very careful in extracting this from the mountain. We didn't want to do anymore damage," Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said Monday.

Shannon Yates, of Doug Yates Towing and Recovery, the company that brought the Jeep down the mountain, said the greatest challenge was getting cables that weigh a couple of thousand pounds up the 82-degree slope to reach the scene.

"It's basically straight up and straight down," he said. "We had to find ways to use the wreckers to pull the cable up because the terrain was so steep. ... We ran a cable up above to hold it and one to winch it down and hold it."

Crews for the company, which is sometimes called to put overturned tractor-trailers back onto their wheels, "knew it would be a tough task," Yates said.

"With all the media exposure, we felt like this was something we needed to do," he said.

Among the crews that helped lower the Jeep were eight to 10 members of Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service, a nonprofit that specializes in cave and cliff accidents.

Due to loose rock and 3 inches of rain expected, the W Road will remain closed the next couple of days, according to authorities.

Signal Mountain Middle/High School Principal Dr. Tom McCullough said the school's four counselors spent part of the weekend preparing how they would help students and staff members understand and respond to the situation. The professionally trained counselors are prepared to aid during such tragic events, he said, and have been dealing with the situation since April.

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