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M.E. staff ready for a new space

TAMPA — Some days the smell of death, poorly masked by the scent of cleaning supplies, hits you in the parking lot at 401 E Morgan St., seeping through car windows and air conditioner vents.

And it intensifies inside.

The receptionist and secretary in the front of the cramped Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office greet guests warmly and then retreat to their faux-wood paneled desks, a flashback to the 70s, when the building was built.

When someone dies suddenly, violently or unexpectedly, their remains must be autopsied. Of 10,000 deaths in Hillsborough County each year, about 1,450 will demand autopsies.

Bodies are brought here and stored in the building's 37 degree cooler, which can hold about 40 at a time. Overflow is stored in a refrigerated trailer tethered down outside.

But Wednesday, the Medical Examiner's Office is scheduled to move to a new, $13.2-million, three-building campus at 1102 N 46th St. in north Tampa, near the University of South Florida— a move 15 years in the making.

"Right now, we just have very little space in this building," said Dick Bailey, director of operations.

The new campus was designed with the problems of the past in mind, Bailey said, including the smell, lack of privacy, risk of flooding and woefully inadequate space.

"The morgue is completely detached," Bailey said. "So there won't be any smell in the administrative building where the families will do the identification."

Since 1977, the Morgan Street building has been one of the last stops for thousands of Hillsborough County's dead, and the scene of grim ritual for families called upon to identify their loved ones.

Currently, investigators or doctors must show family members a picture of the deceased in the crowded front office just a few feet from the door, in full view of anyone coming and going into the busy office. There is no privacy for distraught next of kin there to identify bodies.

At the new office, grieving families will be secluded in a waiting room with couches and a private restroom.

Families aren't the only ones who need some privacy.

Pete Bihorel, a senior forensic investigator, currently shares office space and four work stations with nine people.

"'Excuse me' is the most commonly used phrase in this office," Bihorel joked as employees turned sideways to squeeze past one another in the small hallways.

And the crowding is just as severe for the dead. Bodies are prepped for autopsy in a room surrounded by other stored cadavers waiting on gurneys to go under the knife.

In the new building, the investigators and four additional ones will get their own desks and space to work on cases and contact law enforcement agencies. There also are eight new autopsy stations where the doctors can work, providing each case its own space.

Technological upgrades have been in the works for a few years.

Lab technicians are digitally photographing the dead to save on film and processing. A digital file server holds a huge listing of recent cases to cut down on wasted paper, and the medical examiner's Web site features an entire section of unidentified remains, complete with artist sketches and descriptions of puzzling cases going back to the 1970s.

"Its all about being able to serve better," Bailey said.

Even though, the County Commission voted in favor of a new building and site seven years ago, budget issues and land logistics postponed the groundbreaking until April.

Employees have constantly worried about major storms at the Morgan Street building because it could flood in a Category 3 hurricane. If it ever did flood, the bodies would have to hauled to a mortuary the county had an arrangement with.

"We would box everything up and have it ready to go in case of flooding," Bailey said. "Thank God it never happened, but we are in a flood zone."

Bailey said having the money to build but no money for furniture or tools was a chief concern, and the new facility was pushed back several times because the entire cost could not be met.

But now the new building is completed, and some neighbors are glad to have something filling the void in their neighborhood.

"Before it, was just a bunch of trees over there," said Ronald Daughtry, a resident of the area near the University of South Florida. "I think its good to have something over there and have the rest of that land fenced off."

Hashmat Assad, who lives directly across the street, said he doesn't have any concerns about living next door to dozens of dead people.

"They won't bring any problems to the neighborhood like a jail so I think it will be good for us," he said.

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

10,000

people die in Hillsborough County annually

1,550

bodies are taken to the Medical Examiner's Office

1,450 cases receive

toxicology screens

35

full-time employees

8,000 square feet in the Morgan Street office with room for 40 bodies

31,500 square feet in the 46th Street campus with room for 80 or more bodies

M.E. staff ready for a new space 09/28/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 28, 2008 10:09pm]
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