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Hillsborough County morgue invites public in for grand opening

TAMPA — The smell from the business end of the old county morgue hit you at the front door like a punch in the gut.

Visitors to Hillsborough County's new Medical Examiner Complex were greeted Thursday with strawberries, cheese squares and petit fours.

They came for an old fashioned ribbon cutting, complete with speeches by politicians and oversized gold scissors for doing the honors. But this was no ordinary grand opening. And those scissors — well, hold onto them. They might come in handy.

County Administrator Pat Bean kicked off Thursday's ceremony with a confession. Yes, she's a fan of television's CSI, not to mention Kay Scarpetta, the fictional medical examiner from Patricia Cornwell mysteries.

"But I don't really think CSI paints an accurate picture," Bean says. "We don't have a true appreciation of what goes on here."

Thursday's crowd got a taste. For after the speeches, the photos and the handshakes, came the tour.

Few of the 150 left. Many were family members of morgue employees. There were people from law enforcement and funeral homes. A mother of two let her young daughters play hookey so they could check it out, and one man heard about it on the radio and stopped by for a look.

The tour took in all three of the buildings that make up the $13.2 million complex, just south of the University of South Florida on N 46th Street. The first stop was the administration building. Here, along with fruit and cheese, forensic toxicologist Liz Villafare had prepared a cake.

As part of her job, Villafare tests the corpses that arrive here daily for drug or alcohol use — to see who's been good or bad, she explained. "I'm just giving a hand to St. Peter," she added.

Her cake was a detailed model of the old morgue on Morgan Street in downtown Tampa, down to the body-cleaning tables. It illustrated perhaps the most welcome innovation of the new complex.

The old Medical Examiner's Office housed clerks, investigators and corpses in one cramped building serviced by the same air-handling system. Office workers breathed the same air that flowed through the cadaver storage and autopsy areas.

Let's just say it wasn't a place where you'd want to bring your lunch to work, let alone munch on whatever happens to be sitting around.

Each of the buildings at the new complex has it own air stream. In addition to administration, there is a separate building for toxicology with fancy, high-priced equipment.

But mostly everyone was waiting to see the morgue. And there was a hint of anticipation as Associate Medical Examiner Mary Mainland led a group toward the third building.

"It's going to be okay," said Mainland, with a slight smile. "We're not working today."

Oh, the corpses were there. The agency moved there in October. It stored the bodies out of sight for Thursday's festivities.

Inside the morgue are six autopsy stations. Gadgets with electronic hookups. A separate room for corpses suspected of carrying infectious diseases. An X-ray room, including equipment for taking pictures of teeth, like at the dentist's.

"The difference is when we say bite down, they don't do anything," said Dick Bailey, director of operations.

And there are also more rudimentary reminders of the work that goes on here: four coolers set at 37 degrees, able to hold 35 cadavers apiece. Body-length metal and fiberglass tables.

What are those things that look like soup ladles?

Those are soup ladles, purchased from a restaurant supply warehouse next door, said Kimberly Denton, a cheerful autopsy technician. The chest cavity fills with fluid, and sometimes the high-tech suction tubes hooked to the sink don't work well.

(A note on Denton: She took a tour of the old morgue with her father more than a decade ago. They walked in as someone removed a brain from a body. She decided to volunteer, eventually landing a paid job.)

Yes, those are long-handled tree-pruning shears. Purchased at Wal-Mart, said Denton, and they work as well on ribs.

Rubber boots. Garbage disposals beneath sink basins. An industrial washer and dryer. An assortment of knives and tweezers laid out on a tray at each autopsy station, another reminder of the dentist.

Denton said among her favorite things about the new morgue are the windows. They look out over treetops.

"Sometimes you see butterflies," she said.

Times staff writer Elisabeth Parker contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough County morgue invites public in for grand opening 02/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 12:17am]

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