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Sneed exclusive: Grim details in morgue makeover

Sunday, December 15, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Michael Sneed

Sneed exclusive. . .

It was once called the house of horrors.

Sneed now hears a new $1.4 million effort to modernize the antiquated Cook County morgue, which begins next week, has a grisly component!

-The shocker: In order to update the antiquated 30-year-old cooler system housing corpses at the medical examiner’s office, the bodies will be stacked in refrigerated trucks with built-in racks in the agency’s parking lot!

-Backshot: The facility is where all Cook County autopsies are conducted; the bodies of indigent vets are housed; and where the poor and slain often stay longer than needed.

-Upshot: Sneed also is told the lot will be closed to the public, monitored 24/7 by security guards and a covered walkway will be installed for transporting corpses from the facility to the trucks and back.

“The walkway will preserve the dignity of the deceased,” said Kristen Mack, a spokesperson for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “She and her handpicked Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina are determined to modernize the facility and provide higher quality care for the deceased housed at the facility.”

Sneed has learned the plan is expected to be completed in March.

“This is the first part of the puzzle to bring the facility fully in line with professional standards,” Mack added.

“We need a place to put the bodies, and it will be clear something will be going on in our parking lot next week,” she said. “We want to be completely transparent and not try to hide anything.”

Grisly conditions were detailed in a damning preliminary report by the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) in June 2012, which was reported by Sneed.

The gory details:

Body parts in plastic bags tossed on a cooler floor.

Corpse-carrying forklifts driven by untrained workers crashing into shelves holding the dead.

Autopsy instruments smeared with bodily fluids strewn haphazardly.

Dead bodies stacked unceremoniously in coolers.

Unrelenting stench.

But worst of all: A potential breeding ground for a communicable disease nightmare.

Sneed is told the 2012 report almost caused Preckwinkle’s knees to buckle.

“She was jarred. . . really jarred,” a top Preckwinkle source told Sneed in 2012.

“Preckwinkle had already dispatched a team from her office to alleviate complaints of body stacking and mismanagement in February, which was able to reduce the body count load from 400 plus to 234,” said the source.

“But the report about an airborne disease threat was shocking,” the source said.

The new project will replace:

A 30-year-old infrastructure with contemporary high-durability equipment.

A semi-automated forklift system.

Built-in barcoding for each location in the cooler.

The 2012 DOL report claimed the violations were so serious, “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical injury could result if not abated.”

In fact, no medical examiner employee injury logs were kept, according to the report — which did not include the in-between-the-lines blood and guts details provided to Preckwinkle by her staff — and subsequently given to Sneed by informed sources.

The county morgue may be a house for the dead, but the shocker was the danger for the 97 employees who work there.

Sneed is told Preckwinkle and Cina are getting a big thumbs-up for the project from a staff hoping this time would come.

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