ORLANDO — Authorities have kept the body of the man behind a terror attack at a gay nightclub Sunday away from those of the 49 people he killed, according to Dr. Joshua Stephany, Orange County's chief medical examiner.
"This is not a law or requirement, but was rather done out of respect for the victims and their families so that the shooter may never be near the 49 beautiful souls again," he said in a statement.
Medical examiners stored and conducted an autopsy on the body of the shooter, Omar Mateen, in a separate building from the victims, Stephany said. Mateen walked onto the dance floor of Pulse nightclub early Sunday and shot more than 100 people.
An emergency mortuary team made up of doctors, funeral directors, DNA specialists and others helped medical examiners finish the autopsies and identify all victims within three days of the attack. The group, called the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System, is deployed in disaster situations by the Florida Department of Health, said Larry R. Bedore, a member and former commander.
The group was originally sent out to help interview family members of possible victims, Bedore said. The goal was to track down as much information as possible to get a positive identification on a person, such as hospital and dental records and descriptions of tattoos, scars and jewelry.
"We dig to find clues from when they were alive to be able to identify the body on the table," he said.
Created in July 2002, the group trains annually and has only been deployed one other time following a series of crashes on Interstate 75 near Gainesville that killed 10 people.
When it comes to the emotions involved with handling that many casualties, Bedore said team members are used to separating their emotions from their work, especially when they have a goal to focus on.
"Right now, most of our professionals — they can get their job done because they're focused on the target," he said. "The target is helping these families."
Still, members of the community showed up earlier in the week to help alleviate the emotional and physical toll. Holly Strawn, 49, and her sons Teddy, 10, and Robert, 13, brought a couple dozen doughnuts from a local bakery in the morning and, later, subs and chips from Publix for lunch. The family lives down the street from the office, but usually doesn't pay much attention when driving by because, as Teddy said, the parking lot usually has "like, four cars" in it.
Following the shooting, they saw several hearses at the office, and Strawn suspected the staff was slammed with work to do.
"We know the people that came here are in need of some attention," she said.
By Thursday afternoon, the medical examiner's office said, officials expected to have released every victim's body to a funeral home. Mateen's body had not been released, according to a spokeswoman.
"While our team trains for such incidents, nothing could truly prepare anyone for this devastating loss," Stephany said. "We are honored to have been entrusted to care for all of these individuals, yet saddened to now be among those communities affected by such profound tragedies."