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Overcrowded morgue's new cooler arrives

I-TEAM investigation revealed 'dire lack of space' left at least 1 body on floor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new cooler to hold more bodies at the Northeast Florida regional morgue in Jacksonville arrived Tuesday morning.

The manufacturer, MOPEC, delivered the parts of the cooler, which is so big it has to be assembled piece by piece.

"We are ecstatic for having the cooler here," said Tim Crutchfield, the director of operations at the regional Medical Examiner's Office. "What it will do is almost double our capacity so we can better serve our population."

The. Medical Examiner's Office said the cooler, which was purchased with part of $206,000 approved by the Jacksonville City Council to ease an overcrowding crisis at the morgue, will help, but it will not solve the problem long term.

The overcrowding issues have been caused in large part by the opioid crisis, officials said.

During an I-TEAM investigation last year, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao said that over the course of eight months, not one day went by without her office examining a drug overdose case.

Last November, the I-TEAM learned a body was put on the floor, because of a "dire lack of space."

The current building can hold 42 to 50 bodies, and the new refrigerated space will hold another 40 awaiting autopsy or pickup by funeral homes. Now, the Medical Exmainer's Office will be able to store about 80 to 90 bodies.

The cooler was a valid need for the office, which receives bodies from five Northeast Florida counties: Duval, Nassau, Clay, Hamilton and Columbia. 

But morgue officials said that what they really need is a newer, larger building. The city has such a building in its five-year capital plan, but nothing has been approved.

READ MORE: A history of morgue overcrowding

Rao said last year that there were times when her office had to refuse bodies from funeral homes and hospitals.

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis, who is the chair of the Finance Committee, supports the long-term goal of a new building.

"(It's) one of those things, as a council member, I will just make sure that they stick to their commitment," Dennis said Monday. 

A major challenge in keeping that commitment will be finding land to build on and securing funding for construction of a new Medical Examiner’s Office.

The consideration for a new building has been moved to the capital improvement plan list for the city, but money for a new building has not been approved yet. 

Medical examiners perform autopsies six days a week, four bodies at a time, in a relatively small room. Along with the outdoor walk-in cooler, the money City Council approved covers a mobile office, which arrived last month, and other morgue equipment.

Six employees will work at the mobile office.

About the Authors:

16-year veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.