New Orleans Coroner: Taking Care of Katrina's Dead

New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard has held the elected office for more than 30 years, but Katrina has been the greatest challenge he's ever faced. He talks about why it takes so long to identify and release bodies.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Louisiana, the pace of identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina has been slow, and that means many complaints and much confusion. So far officials have recovered 1,035 victims; of those, about a third have been positively identified, and some 200 bodies have been released to families. Dr. Frank Minyard is the coroner of Orleans Parish, where most of the victims are from. He's been working at the morgue that FEMA has set up in St. Gabriel outside Baton Rouge. I asked Minyard about the autopsies ordered by Louisiana's attorney general. He's pursuing criminal charges against nursing home operators, and he's investigating whether staff at Memorial Medical Center may have euthanized patients. Minyard says those autopsies have slowed the identification process down.

Dr. FRANK MINYARD (Orleans Parish Coroner): He wants us--and we did--do autopsies on the hospital patients and nursing home patients, and at Memorial he wanted toxicology. Since there was no blood, bowel, urine or vitreous humor, we had to take pieces of liver and kidney and brain and send it to a lab up in Pennsylvania. We have not gotten any results back yet.

BLOCK: When do you figure you'd get those results back?

Dr. MINYARD: Well, I can't answer that. Ordinarily we'd do it in-house; I mean, we have our lab, but, of course, we don't have an office anymore. We have to send it away. But it wouldn't take as long as sending solid pieces of tissue. Even when we get something back, I mean, I'm not going to talk about it publicly. I mean, that's up to the attorney general.

BLOCK: Yeah. There are state officials there in Louisiana who've said that you've actually been declining some offers of help. Is that the case?

Dr. MINYARD: I have not declined any offer of help, but I needed a couple of things. One, I needed a medical stenographer to come here and type up the dictations of the pathologists 'cause we have one medical stenographer. Now you can do a hundred autopsies, but if you have nobody to type up the little cassettes, you're not doing any good. We have told the powers to be we need them, and as I speak we have not gotten them.

BLOCK: Sounds like you've been running into some red tape.

Dr. MINYARD: You can't imagine a red tape I went into just to get a telephone. This telephone we're talking on, it took a month to get it. Another reason we have not been able to get patholo--I didn't want to have them come in is there was no place for them to live.

BLOCK: So there have been some pathologists who've said, `Look, I'd be happy to come down,' and you've had to say, `We really don't have a way to support you here'?

Dr. MINYARD: That's exactly right, but now we do. All of a sudden four trailers showed up here this weekend. But it's the little things. I mean, we can get big things very easily, like a refrigerated truck--you just snap your finger and one shows up. But you ask for a stenographer, then that's a problem.

BLOCK: There was one victim, a woman who died at the Convention Center on September 1st, died, I believe, in her daughter's arms. And her daughters came to the morgue there, as you're well aware, last week saying that they couldn't get any information about their mother; had not gotten an identification, certainly had not gotten a body returned. Can you explain that?

Dr. MINYARD: No, I can't explain it. I met those two ladies at the gate, and of course they knew me 'cause they're from New Orleans. You know, I cannot explain. I can't explain why anybody can't find their loved one. We're doing everything possible to find it. Just about everybody who works for me lives here in St. Gabriel, and so we work seven days a week. All I can tell you is that we are looking for that lady.

BLOCK: For all the time that you've worked as a coroner, more than 30 years now, have you ever grown accustomed to the work and to the work that you're doing now?

Dr. MINYARD: No, ma'am. You never grow accustomed to this work, and, of course, no one has ever had this type of a forensic challenge in the history of this country. This is the biggest storm, you know, that's killed all these people.

BLOCK: I suppose, you know--and in many ways New Orleans is a small town, and you've been involved in that city for so long--you must think of these people not just as cases but as fellow New Orleanians.

Dr. MINYARD: They're my people, every one of them, and I feel very, very close to them. I get emotional about it. I get emotional about the people, I get emotional about the city, I get emotional about the music. You know, I play trumpet. I have a band. A couple of weeks ago--I hadn't practiced or played because of the hurricane, and I took out my trumpet in the quiet place of my trailer, and I played, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" And I started crying. The devastation not only of the place but of the people and our lives--none of us will ever be the same ever. (Singing) Do you know what it means...

BLOCK: Yeah.

Dr. MINYARD: (Singing) ...to miss New Orleans? I miss it each night and day.

Great song.

BLOCK: Dr. Minyard, thanks for talking with us today.

Dr. MINYARD: OK. Thank you.

BLOCK: Dr. Frank Minyard is the coroner of Orleans Parish. He spoke with us from St. Gabriel, Louisiana.

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