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Reckoning With The Dead: Journalist Goes Inside New York COVID-19 Disaster Morgue

Editor's note: This interview contains graphic details that some readers may find upsetting.

Of the roughly 100,000 Americans included in the official COVID-19 death count, 20,000 died in New York City in a period of just two months. Time magazine reporter W.J. Hennigan recently spent several weeks looking into the practical challenge of how a city deals with so many dead bodies suffused with a deadly pathogen.

Though he spent years as a war reporter, covering conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hennigan says, "nothing really prepared me for the level of devastation and the amount of death" in New York City.

"When you walk into a major U.S. city and you see the sorts of things that they're dealing with — racks of corpses and industrial warehouses full of people dedicated to processing the dead — it's not something that comes natural," he says. "The scale of it is incomparable to anything that we've seen."

Hennigan's story, "'We Do This for the Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort to Bury Its Dead," describes the disaster morgues that have been operating around the clock during the pandemic.

"This is not the sort of way that you'd expect your life to end — where you'd be stacked like cordwood in a refrigerated trailer at a marine terminal in Brooklyn," Hennigan says. "There are 200 of these trailers across New York, at every hospital. It's a haunting thing."

Interview highlights

On the Brooklyn Marine Terminal, a major warehouse complex where the dead are being processed and held

It's essentially a distribution hub, if you can imagine, like an Amazon fulfillment center where trucks come and go, and it's right off of New York's Inner Harbor and it's opposite the Statue of Liberty, so you can see very clearly across the water. The warehouse complex itself there — there are three of them — and each warehouse building is the size of a football field or larger. And inside each of those are a mix of U.S. service members, state officials, city officials [and] emergency officials, all of them trying to help process the hundreds of bodies that are coming in each day.

In the middle of the main facility, there is a military tent set up and the bodies come through there on gurneys. The bodies are examined. They are tagged. The information is put into a computer system. Then they are wheeled to a 53-foot tractor-trailer. They're put on a rack. There are three tiers of wooden shelving. Their position on that trailer is documented — just like you would be if you went on an airplane, "Seat 31, row D." ... That trailer is wheeled out to the middle of the parking lot and put there until a funeral director can come pick the body up. ...

Inside of each of the warehouses, everybody's wearing a hazmat suit, like these hooded jumpsuits that protect them, and wearing gloves and visors. ... There are metal gurneys that are used. All of this has been put together fairly quickly. So all of the ramps and the loading bays and all this sort of thing is purpose-built for the processing of the corpses that are coming through there. It's a hive of activity, and it's being done day and night. They don't close operations. They go 24/7.

On setting up the disaster morgues as an alternative to mass graves

I spent a lot of time with [First Deputy Chief Medical Examiner] Frank DePaolo, who's overseeing all the forensic operations and the COVID response. He's basically orchestrated this plan, which is establishing these emergency morgue units and this hub-and-spoke model of dealing with mass death, because Frank himself, he deals with these sorts of events, these emergency responses all over the world. He's often called in. For instance, when [the] Sandy Hook [school shooting] happened, he was called in to help out with that. When [the] Las Vegas [mass shooting] happened, he was called to help advise the people there. ...

If it wasn't handled this way and if they weren't able to expand all their operations, bodies would have to be buried in a mass grave. I mean, that's just the reality. And people within the death care system told me that ... we were very close to going off the rails here.

On the mass grave on Hart Island where unclaimed bodies go

In the early days of the pandemic they were ... so inundated with corpses that they were just incapable of holding them all. And this is before these emergency disaster morgues were established. There are now four of them across New York City, in addition to the five brick-and-mortar facilities that the New York medical examiner's office operates. What the medical examiner had done is said, "We can't hold these corpses any longer. We need to be able to process the new ones that are coming in." And what they settled on was they would hold on to a body for 15 days. And if it wasn't claimed or picked up by a funeral director, it would be sent to Hart Island — which has, for over 100 years, been basically a mass grave where bodies are sent in simple, pine boxes and stacked on top of one another and buried by inmates from Rikers Island. ...

Many bodies have been sent there. ... People are not able to get to their loved ones now, so many, many bodies go unclaimed. Something on the order of six times as many bodies have been sent there since this pandemic started. And that trend continues as people are unable to get out of their houses and claim their loved ones.

On the overwhelming demand on funeral directors

I talked to a number of funeral directors, but the one that I document in the story is John D'Arienzo, who works in Brooklyn. He told me he knows 90% of the decedents that come through his funeral home. ...

So the way that it typically works is that the funeral director is able to pick up the body basically whenever the family wants the body to be picked up. And the situation that they're facing now is they can't even get through to a funeral director. The phone is ringing off the hook, because so many people need the help. And for somebody like John, who knows the people in his neighborhood, who is having to turn away families because he's just so inundated in work, it breaks his heart. The purpose of a funeral director is to help families process death, to help them go through this grieving process. And if you can't even get through the front door, I mean, he feels like he's doing a huge disservice to his community. He says these sort of things with tears in his eyes.

On the New York crematories running round-the-clock

There are only four crematories in New York City and they are heavily regulated because of environmental concerns. Many are in communities, so there are a lot of strictures on the way that they operate. And they were only able to operate ... something like on the order of 12 hours a day, roughly. Because of COVID and because of the demand, New York loosened the restrictions on that time window, and they were able to operate 24/7. So crematories are now in business all day long. These are big ovens, brick ovens, and they are operating at up to 1,800 degrees, and they're just not supposed to be running for that long. So they need to have time down. But in two cases — out of the four crematories — they had their ovens collapse because of overuse.

On avoiding the death care side of this crisis

There's been a lot of coverage on the front-line health care workers, and I think that makes sense. They make people well, or at least try to. But what's not been really as widely covered or understood, it is the death-care side of things. Because the flip side of any pandemic is the death, and how that work is is being handled.

I think it's more of a philosophical question of the American psyche, of why we don't reflect on that, the sheer numbers of deaths that we've had in this country. I think there is an expectation and a hope that we get beyond this and maybe we don't want to confront the death. In a lot of ways, maybe we haven't really processed the numbers. I know for a number of people, it was hard to really imagine 100,000 people passing away as a result of this virus until they saw it on the front page of The New York Times, where just 1,000 of the 100,000 names were listed there. It's the same sort of emotion that strikes you when you stand in front of the Vietnam Memorial. We read about these things in textbooks. We've lived through them. But until you see the scope and the scale of this, that's when you get that pit in your stomach.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.
Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.