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Morgue Officials Ask for Patience

As families wait in agony and anger for hurricane victims' remains to be returned, coroners cite the complexity of identifying the bodies.

October 15, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

ST. GABRIEL, La. — At the gates of the makeshift state morgue, anguished family members begged reporters to bring them information about the bodies of loved ones. Inside, where reporters were being briefed, state coroners asked for patience and defended the slow pace of identification of those who died in Hurricane Katrina more than seven weeks ago.

"There is no reason we would want to keep those bodies any longer than we have to," said Louis Cataldie, the state's medical examiner. Cataldie is coordinating the death count at the morgue, set up in September on the grounds of a former junior-senior high school complex in this small prison town south of Baton Rouge.

"To release the wrong body is worse than to release no body," said Bryan J. Bertucci, the coroner of St. Bernard Parish, one of the most devastated parts of the state.

But those explanations weren't good enough for Earline Eleby-Coleman, the distraught daughter of Clementine Eleby, who died in another daughter's arms Sept. 1 at the Louisiana Superdome. Eleby's 80th birthday would have been Friday.

"How would any of you feel if that were your mother in there?" Eleby-Coleman, 47, shouted at reporters.

"I can't sleep; the family is sick over this," she added. "I feel like my mother's crying out to me from in there. Why can't they do this any faster? Surely there are enough coroners in the world to do this quicker."

But mortuary officials said they had help from nearly all 50 states. The process, they said, was slowed by the enormous complexity of the task and the fact that hundreds of bodies had been delivered to the morgue in a severely decomposed state.

Morgue officials also said they were doing detailed toxicological tests on the brain, liver and muscle tissue of the deceased, in part to test for indications of morphine or other strong narcotics.

A doctor at one New Orleans hospital told CNN on Thursday that during the height of the flooding he had heard some doctors and nurses discussing euthanasia for severely frail or ill patients who could not be evacuated and were already headed for almost certain death.

Louisiana Atty. Gen. Charles C. Foti has ordered an investigation of all hospital and nursing-home deaths. The administrator of the hospital at the center of the doctor's allegations, Memorial Medical Center, said in a statement that the doctor "either misspoke or is a liar."

Morgue officials gave reporters an update and tour Friday -- in part to dispel what a public-relations official called the "mystery and misrepresentation" of what was going on inside the facility. Their event was to some degree upstaged by the small group of relatives who showed up for the tour but were kept outside barbed-wire gates.

Officials released a statistical update, saying 132 people who died during the flooding, including one child, had been released to family members.

There are 128 other bodies that either can be released or are about to be, pending notification of survivors -- in some cases family members who evacuated from Louisiana.

That leaves about 580 bodies to be officially identified. Included among these are eight bodies with gunshot wounds; officials said they believed two of these to be self-inflicted.

All told, the state Department of Health and Hospitals said, 1,035 bodies have been recovered from the storm. Most are being processed at the morgue here; about 200 are at parish morgues.

Cataldie said officials were struggling to "make it right, make it accurate" in delivering remains to grieving family members.

In some cases, said Bertucci, bodies are so decomposed that on first inspection one "can't recognize if it's a male or female, black or white."

Morgue officials said dental records remained the best and most definitive way to identify the deceased; but many people have no access to such records of their loved ones. DNA testing, in which genetic material of the deceased is matched to those of their living relatives, is a much longer and more involved process, he said.

"I can assure you," Bertucci said, "this is being done with the utmost of respect."

The detailed three-hour tour of the facility included the sleeping, eating and bathing facilities of the workers at the morgue, who include state workers and members of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

One official said that even though some people are working 10- and 12-hour days, tedium was a difficult morale factor.

"That's one of the biggest enemies in this camp: boredom," said the official. "So there are games that get invented, books that get donated." Local residents in St. Gabriel were going to host a "Mississippi Mudpie Social" today.

Posted outside one office was a notice from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, describing the department he heads as "a special place -- a place where you can really make a difference in the lives of others." The notice continued: "Keep up the great work."

Friday's media tour of the morgue included the large, super-cooled tented area where inspections of the remains are made. No bodies were shown, out of respect for the dead, officials said.

Outside the gates, 200 feet or so away, Eleby's daughters shouted for more information. Inside, Cataldie said he was sympathetic but that people did not understand the complexity of the process.

And Bertucci pleaded for some sympathy for state medical examiners; many, including him, lost their own homes.

He said it had only fully dawned on him a few days ago how much had been lost.

"The world as I knew it no longer exists," said Bertucci, struggling to hold back tears. "There are no red shoes to click, as in the 'Wizard of Oz,' to return home."

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