A body’s last stop: Countdown at morgue is 24 hours

NO VISITS: ‘If they pass out, they’re going to hit their head hard on the floor,’ says Larry J. Cameron, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner about relatives identifying the dead.
NO VISITS: ‘If they pass out, they’re going to hit their head hard on the floor,’ says Larry J. Cameron, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner about relatives identifying the dead. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Nearly 3,000 bodies a year are brought here — with bullet and stab wounds, overdoses through veins, collapsed jugulars from strangulation, twisted limbs from car wrecks.

But unlike on television or in the movies, family members aren’t escorted downstairs to coolers where bodies are rolled in and out of cabinets to be identified.

“Oh, no, never down to the morgue. It’s too shocking,” said Larry Cameron, the longtime spokesman for Miami-Dade County’s Medical Examiner. “If they pass out, they’re going to hit their head on the hard floor. We take a Polaroid.”

The county’s morgue is the red brick building across from the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital to which few ever venture. Yet for decades, as the injured are rushed to Jackson, where police and media show up en masse, 83 people — doctors, toxicologists, investigators — toil in obscurity just across the street.

The department’s $11 million annual budget pays for comfortable waiting rooms for family members, high-tech laboratories with expensive spectrometers that spin blood to identify toxins, a large records bureau, several refrigerators and, of course —five coolers where the bodies are stored until they are taken to be cremated or buried.

“Our goal is 24 hours or less to the funeral home,” Cameron said.

Work begins at the morgue as soon as any unnatural death is reported in Miami-Dade. That’s when one of the department’s 13 investigators travels to the scene and studies the condition of the body and the surrounding area. The body is then loaded into a van and taken to the Medical Examiner’s office just south of Northwest 20th Street and west of Interstate 95.

The van pulls into one of seven air-conditioned and well-lit bays at the back of the building. Sometimes, if a body from a car crash is too mangled to extract from a scene, fire-rescue workers will bring the body still inside the vehicle to the morgue, where it will be removed.

The body is then rolled into a small waiting area through a glass electronic door, where it is weighed, measured and photographed. The information is recorded in a computer there, before the body is shipped to one of the morgue’s five coolers.

From there, the body is taken to one of 13 autopsy stations where doctors and toxicologists will determine the exact cause of death through an examination and blood work. Cameron said the photography studio in the building takes more than 100,000 pictures each year.

Blood is passed along to a chemistry lab, where last week toxicology supervisor Roger Allard was filling vials to spin them in the spectrometer. The machine will determine what had coursed through the bloodstream of several bodies.

“This is a validation for opiate extracted out of blood,” Allard explained.

Specimens, Cameron explained, are kept refrigerated for up to five years so they’re available for police investigations, or in case they’re requested by attorneys or the courts.

When all of that is completed, the information is sent to the department’s records bureau, which Cameron said holds every case file that has been received since 1956. Because the case files take up so much space, many are now stored off-site. The department is in the process of digitizing everything, an effort that is expected to take several more months, at least.

Although everything on a recent day seemed orderly, Cameron spent a few moments explaining why the front door now has to be unlocked by a worker inside at the information desk, which is surrounded by protective glass and has a panic button to notify police if something goes wrong.

He said that for decades visitors could enter at will, and only the desk divided them from entering the inner workings of the facility. But a few months ago, a grieving family member went berserk and jumped the desk, blaming the morgue for the person’s death. Often, he explained, the grieving aren’t rational.

Protection for workers was soon added.

“It’s even got a panic button,” Cameron said. “We never had to do that before.”

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