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Can we think about survivors, please?

December 03, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

It's every parent's worst nightmare.

First comes the call from police. It was a rainy night and your son or daughter was driving down a country road not far from home when something happened.

Maybe a deer jumped across the road or the tires hit a patch of oil. The car skidded, the panicky driver overcorrected and the car swerved head-on into a tree. Someone in a nearby house heard the noise, looked out the door, saw the wreck and called police.

By the time you arrive, you know the worst. Your child is dead.

And so you stand in the rain, looking at the wreck, sick with sadness and a little bit nauseous from the pulsating lights of the police cruiser.

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Then comes more bad news. Your loved one's body will not be moved any time soon, because the law requires that an autopsy be done by the Maryland's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

And the only vehicle available to take the body to Baltimore has to come from Baltimore, an hour and a half away.

So now, dear readers, you're probably asking yourselves: Why doesn't someone or some agency from Washington County make the transport?

The short answer is that Kerfoot Livery Service, the only county-based body-transport company, hadn't had a raise in 10 years.

And when gasoline hit $3 a gallon, the owner decided he could no longer operate and still make a profit. The company ceased that part of its business on July 31. The state engineered a small raise - from $1.75 to $2 a mile - but anything above and beyond that will have to wait until July of 2007.

The county government could make up the difference - about $20,000 a year - but has so far taken the position that it's not the county's responsibility.

Is this a real problem? Although forensic investigators working for the state medical examiner's office have used a West Virginia-based service for some transports, sometimes there is no one available for a couple of hours.

On August 23, a 2005 Boonsboro High School graduate was killed on Sharpsburg Pike when his motorcycle struck another car. The investigator pronounced him dead at 8:29 a.m., but the body remained on the scene for two hours until someone could be found to transport it.

Such a delay would not compromise the outcome of an autopsy, according to David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, who spoke to me about the situation this past week.

Unless the body were in a closed car on a hot summer day, there should be no significant damage if it is not picked up for an hour or two, Fowler said.

Based on Fowler's description, the state law governing body transport is geared to encourage competition, but because the per-mile rate hasn't been changed in so long, there haven't been many people interested.

"Ten years ago, $1.75 was a lot of money. That was very attractive," he said.

When gasoline prices jumped, Fowler said he went to the state health department and got funding to bring the price to $2 a mile.

To get more than that, Fowler said the Maryland General Assembly will have to approve a change in the law. He plans to ask for an increase to $2.25 in 2007 and to $2.50 in 2008.

Fowler said his department's goal is to get the rate high enough so that there can be healthy competition for the service.

As Fowler describes it, the law does not allow the state to pick and choose if more than one company provides the service. The short version of what he told me is that if Smith and Jones both provide the service, each must be called in rotation.

That's provided, of course, that both have agreed in advance to be on call 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The only exception is if the family calls the funeral home first, which means that the funeral home can choose who gets to do the transport.

It seems much less efficient than the system used by the state Board of Anatomy, which collects bodies that have been donated to science. That agency puts its work out to bid and even if it takes the low bid, it isn't dealing with operators who can't cover their costs.

Bob Rankin, a funeral director with Minnich Funeral Home in Hagerstown, said that funeral homes don't want to do transports, for two reasons.

The first is that it ties up their crews for hours, leaving them unavailable for local pick-ups. And if the funeral home transports the body to Baltimore, there is no obligation for the family to use that company afterward.

Here's another deterrent: Unless the case is the result of a homicide, the state doesn't pay anything for the return trip.

In mid-November, the local police agencies met with representatives of the state medical examiner's office to see what might be done.

Rankin said that he's been told that a couple of funeral homes have agreed to do transports if no one else can be found. But they're not thrilled about it, he said.

County Administrator Rod Shoop confirmed that and said that while everyone came to the meeting hoping that the county would help, "it is not the county's responsibility to subsidize this service."

But, I asked, doesn't the county now provide supplemental payments to the medical doctors who go out on calls after an accident or a homicide.

"You're talking about apples and oranges," Shoop said.

Fowler told me there are 100 cases a year in which a body has to come from Washington County to Baltimore.

People I've spoken to have said that although there is universal agreement that Kerfoot has provided good service for 38 years, not everyone is happy with the way owner Thomas E. Wetzel Sr. has campaigned for an increase.

There is no doubt that in the past 10 years, Wetzel's costs have gone up for the sort of work most of us would rather not think about.

But compared to the overall county budget, this subsidy would be pocket change.

But don't do it for Wetzel. Do it for the mother or father standing along the side of the road in the rain, waiting for someone to take away what's left of a precious child.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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