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‘The last responders:’ US mass shootings take toll on coroners’ offices

Washington – After a gunman killed eight workers and himself at an Indianapolis FedEx centre last week – the city’s third mass shooting this year – the chief deputy coroner spoke of the toll the deaths had taken on her coworkers.

“It is a very difficult job,” said Alfarena McGinty of the Marion County Coroner’s Office. “The staff is definitely suffering and is going to need long-term counseling.”

John Fudenberg knows such strain all too well.

In 2017, after a gunman killed 58 people at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas, Fudenberg’s staff at the Clark County Coroner’s Office was responsible for telling families their loved ones were dead. He said they delivered the devastating news several times an hour in the days following the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

“I saw several employees experience what I believe was PTSD and trauma,” said Fudenberg, who retired as coroner last year. Within months of the shooting, which had a final death toll of 60, five full-time staff quit or retired.

The recent flurry of mass shootings in the United States has shined a fresh spotlight on the country’s gun debate and left dozens more families grieving victims of the violence. Often unnoticed is the behind-the-scenes work carried out by coroners: identifying the victims, completing death certificates and notifying families that their loved ones are gone.

Even in a job where death is part of every day, psychologists and several coroners said the mental and physical stress of working through mass shootings is immense. At least 154 mass shootings have taken place this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that tallies gun deaths.

Johanna O’Flaherty, a crisis psychologist, counseled Fudenberg’s team after the Las Vegas shooting and just returned from helping the coroner’s team in Boulder, Colorado, after the March 22 shooting that left 10 people dead at a grocery store.

O’Flaherty said coroners often lack the mental health support network offered to first responders such as police and firefighters.

“How many think of the coroners – the last responders?” she said, calling them “the forgotten group.”

Mounting deaths from Covid-19 have further stretched coroners’ offices, and she said she has now been facilitating support groups to help them cope with that as well.

‘Horrific’ conversations

For some coroners, mass shootings are horribly personal.

Sara Canady, a justice of the peace in Wilson County, Texas, whose responsibilities include serving as a coroner, arrived at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs soon after a gunman killed 26 worshippers and injured 20 others on Nov. 5, 2017. Canady knew many of the victims.

“To see people you know and love in such a horrific state, it’s just mind-blowing,” she said, fighting back tears in an interview.

Rae Wooten was the coroner in Charleston, South Carolina, when a 21-year-old white supremacist gunned down nine Black congregants at a church in 2015.

She knew the painful work ahead of her team, having dealt with the deaths of nine firefighters in a furniture store fire eight years earlier.

At the hotel where terrified relatives of the churchgoers gathered, Wooten and her staff asked them for details of their loved ones: height, age, birth marks, scars, jewelry, hair color and physical appearance.

All night long, Wooten and her two deputies went back and forth from the church to the hotel, informing relatives as soon as they had an identification.

“The communicating, it was horrific,” Wooten said. “Each family member reacts differently. Some cry, some scream and become hysterical, some go mute, some sob quietly.”

Wooten, who retired in January, said people often asked why she did such difficult work. She said seeing people move on from their darkest hour sustained her.

“I tell them that their loved one is dead, and they are physically and emotionally and spiritually reduced to their knees. They don’t think they can live,” she said. “Months later, they start to live again and that’s a reward.” — Reuters

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