The man charged with fixing a broken Cook County medical examiner’s office 18 months ago, declared his agency “risen from the ashes,” as he led a tour of a gleaming new morgue cooler Thursday.
“These are exciting times for the Cook County medical examiner’s office,” said the office chief, Dr. Stephen Cina. “We will continue to look to the future, while we never forget the lessons of the past.”
Some two years after the Chicago Sun-Times first detailed appalling conditions at the morgue on Chicago’s West Side — including bodies stacked on top of each other beneath blue tarps — Cina said his office has received “provisional accreditation” from the National Association of Medical Examiners.
“It’s evidence that key standards and measures are being followed,” said Cina’s boss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “Perhaps more importantly, it should give assurance to those whose loved ones pass through the medical examiner’s office that the deceased are treated with dignity, care and respect.”
She added: “Roughly two years ago, I stood in this lobby under the worst possible circumstances. . . . And let me say right now, we’re not going to relive that moment.”
The $1.4 million morgue cooler rehab project is complete and workers planned to move bodies inside this week, after storing them in refrigerated trucks in the employee parking lot. A new $900,000 electronic case management system is expect to be up and running by the spring, Cina said.
Problems at the Cook County medical examiner’s office came to a head in January 2012, when fed-up staff began complaining publicly about bodies piling up and filthy conditions.
The Sun-Times first reported the crowded conditions, with sources telling the newspaper some 400 adult bodies and about 100 babies’ bodies were kept in a cooler designed for just under 300. Another source called the cooler scene — with bodies stacked on boxes and covered in blue tarps — “sacrilegious.”
Then-Cook County Medical Examiner Nancy Jones said at the time that there were more bodies in the morgue than usual because state funding for public aid burials had been cut.
The news prompted a state labor department probe and Preckwinkle, who oversees the office, to start an internal investigation. Preckwinkle pointed to management problems. Months later, Jones announced she was stepping down.
Preckwinkle then hired Cina, a Florida pathologist.