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Coroner Turns Detective to Seek Heat Victims' Kin

July 29, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Imperial County Deputy Coroner Henry Proo was a cop for 32 years and has been a coroner for 4 1/2 . During that time he has steadily chronicled death beneath the relentless summer sun of the Imperial Valley.

But even he has never seen a summer like this one.

Eight people in six days.

"This is by far the worst we've ever had it," Proo said Friday. "In August, temperatures here average 110 to 115, so it's no big deal. Usually we might have one a week or two, but eight in six days? That's unbelievable."

It is also the worst he's ever had it. Of the eight deaths, Proo has responded to seven.

On days when he is not out at a site, he's exhausting lead after lead, trying to locate the next of kin.

Many of those who died in the heat lived on the social and economic margins of society. Proo searched tents, campsites and trailers with no electricity, hunting for cards or letters that linked the dead to family.

But the isolation that left them vulnerable before their deaths will probably leave them unclaimed afterward, he said.

Early Friday, Proo spent 1 1/2 hours searching the tent of a 64-year-old woman who lived near Winterhaven. It was his second trip there.

"She was on every mailing list known to man that supported some kind of kitty cat, but I opened every box, every backpack, and she never either received or kept letters, postcards or correspondence that would lead me to believe that there is anybody else out there for her at all," he said.

The woman had nine cats that perished too.

"She'd been dead for a week and the cats were locked up," Proo said.

Nor has he found relatives of a 59-year-old man who died July 21 in Nyland. The man lived in a tent in heavy brush near a freeway, and even though he had ample water, he could not stave off heat-related heart failure, Proo said.

"It's just so hard to keep yourself hydrated and cool, and at that age you're just inviting some type of" heat-related problem, he said. "Naturally, anything over 98.6 degrees and your body is starting to overheat; anything over 102, you're starting to be dehydrated and your organs are losing their functionability."

The first to die in the record heat wave was J. Salud Rojas Balerio, 53, of Mexico City, an illegal immigrant picked up by the Border Patrol on July 18.

"You cannot carry enough water to make it safely -- you're not that strong," he said.

Proo cares but strives to keep his feelings firmly in check while doing his job.

"I'm sorry for the people, but the absolute [last] thing I want to do to lose my job is to start caring too much," he said. "I just don't think about it. I wall it up. Wall it off."

Then he adds: "But I have my moments. There are some cases you can't get away from."

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