Mississippi Coroner Describes Effort to Recover Bodies

Melissa Block talks with Gary Hargrove, the coroner of Harrison County in southern Mississippi. Hargrove is overseeing the body-recovery effort on the Mississippi coast.

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The number of deaths from Hurricane Katrina is still far from clear. The mayor of New Orleans has guessed that 10,000 might have been killed in that city alone. In six counties in southern Mississippi 143 bodies have been recovered so far; about half of those, 75, were found in Harrison County, which includes the big casino towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. Gary Hargrove is the coroner of Harrison County. He says personnel from around the country have come to help the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, or DMORT, operating on the Mississippi coast. And a big part of the job is helping people figure out if their family members are among the dead.

Mr. GARY HARGROVE (Coroner, Harrison County, Mississippi): What we do is we ask people who are missing someone to make contact with the family assistance center set up by DMORT or the Red Cross. Once they are interviewed and a form is filled out and--then their DNA sample is taken from the family member.

BLOCK: A DNA sample?

Mr. HARGROVE: That's correct. The body is taken to the morgue that we have set up. It'll be processed, fingerprinted, dental records, DNA samples, determination of death. And then that information will be matched up against the information that has been taken by the forms that have been filled out. And when they match up, then we know we have a match, and then at that point that individual has been positively identified.

The other process that'll take place is that the family will be contacted. Instructions on which funeral home or mortuary they want to use will be given to us. We will release the bodies to them, and then they'll be notified for pickup. A death certificate will be signed and sent to the funeral home, which then they'll send it on to the state to be filed, and then the family can move on with the grieving process.

BLOCK: Mr. Hargrove, do you have the help you need to do your job right?

Mr. HARGROVE: Absolutely. We've got volunteers from all over the United States, from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida. I've got firefighters volunteering. I've got deputy coroners. I've got coroners from the north part of the state coming down to assist. So we have a lot of people here. And now we're in the process of, you know, taking care of the ones that have lost their lives so that we can get them back to their loved ones.

BLOCK: Do you have any sense of how long it might be before you've been able to identify all of the bodies in your county?

Mr. HARGROVE: No, I sure don't. It's going--you know, we're not going to get in a hurry and misidentify somebody. We're not going to miss something that we need to, you know, really look at hard. There's a procedure in place. We're going to follow that procedure. If it takes, you know, a couple weeks to finalize and get them all done or, you know, a month or so, whatever the time frame is, we're going to do it and we're going to do it right, so that when we return an individual back to their family, that they know for a fact that that is their family member, and there will not be any doubts a year from now or 10 years from now.

BLOCK: Mr. Hargrove, I imagine as a coroner you have to steel yourself against the deaths that you see on a regular basis. But I do wonder, especially as someone who lives in that community in Gulfport, whether this is just something that's too hard to bear at times?

Mr. HARGROVE: Well, you know, it's hard anytime you deal with death as a coroner. You deal with family that are either thoroughly traumatized by the death or in extreme grieving process. The hardest part is the fact that a lot of folks--you know, people in a disaster like this ...(unintelligible) large numbers. You have to, you know, watch personnel and everything to make sure that, you know, no one gets overcome by the moment.

BLOCK: Mr. Hargrove, we appreciate your talking with us. Thanks very much.

Mr. HARGROVE: You bet. Thank you.

BLOCK: Gary Hargrove is the coroner of Harrison County, Mississippi. He spoke with us from Gulfport.

Extended coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath is at our Web site, npr.org.

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