Walking into the Pulse nightclub hours after a gunman opened fire Sunday, Chief Medical Examiner Joshua Stephany was struck by the magnitude of the task before him.
Nine victims had already died at a hospital. At the club he found dozens more, surrounded by untouched drinks, unpaid bills and at least one discarded wallet.
“Everything stood still,” he said, “like time stopped.”
But for Stephany, 41, the clock was ticking.
Outside, distraught families were eager for news. Stephany decided on a deadline: identify and autopsy the dead by Tuesday.
He had been filling in as the medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties for about a year, with a staff of four, and called in two state pathologists to help. Even so, it took most of the first day just to move bodies to the morgue, because they could transport only two at a time, he said.
They drove gunman Omar Mateen, 29, separately, placing his body in a smaller morgue.
“There’s no legal reason, there’s no real protocol,” for separating the gunman, Stephany said in an interview Thursday.
Generally, he tries not to transport the bodies of attackers with their victims. That was even more important with so many families awaiting news, wondering where their loved ones were, he said.
“It’s just what I felt was right,” Stephany said. “One day we’ll reflect on it and I don’t want the image of 49 victims and the shooter being autopsied side by side.”
He conducted the gunman’s autopsy himself.
The morgue has space for 150 bodies, but the task of examining and identifying them simultaneously was daunting, he said. Some victims still had their cellphones, which would ring as friends and family learned of the shooting and tried to find them.
Technicians photographed, X-rayed and fingerprinted the dead, washing blood from their faces to compare with driver’s licenses, inspecting their jewelry and tattoos. By the next day, they had identified all but one of the victims.
Then Stephany asked a police officer to bring him the wallet he had noticed at Pulse. It proved a match to the John Doe, identified Tuesday as Geraldo Ortiz-Jimenez, 25.
Stephany conducted about a half-dozen victims’ autopsies – at some point, he lost count. He couldn’t determine from their wounds what types of weapons and ammunition were used, or whether any died from friendly fire as police confronted the gunman. But he could tell that they did not suffer, he said, because there were no signs they struggled after they were shot.
By the end of Tuesday, Stephany’s team had not only succeeded in identifying and autopsying all of the dead, but he had also been named to a three-year term as chief medical examiner – he skipped the county commission meeting at which it was announced.
Hours later, he was facing a new crisis: A 2-year-old boy had been dragged off by an alligator at a nearby Disney World hotel beach. His office is conducting that autopsy too. Days before the Pulse shooting, it had conducted autopsies for “Voice” singer Christina Grimmie, 22, shot after performing nearby, and her attacker, who killed himself.
By Thursday afternoon, Stephany’s office had released all of the nightclub shooting victims’ bodies to funeral homes, which had started conducting services. The gunman’s body had not been released.
He said that, like many medical examiners, he had trained to respond to mass casualties, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. He had watched mass shootings unfold in San Bernardino, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., and focused on logistics.
But now he said he finds himself struggling to keep his emotions in check. He stopped talking to his friends for a few days, cutting them off.
“It’s starting to get to me,” he said. Given the scale of the massacre, he predicted, eventually, “The magnitude will hit everybody.”
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