Bodies pile up at over-stressed morgues

Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) manager Wayne Mitten and forensic pathology officer Sheila Hill at the Salt River Mortuary.

An upsurge in violent crime across the city has left staff at Salt River Morgue battling to find space for 200 unidentified bodies.

Wayne Mitten, the manager of the Forensic Pathology Service (FPS) in Salt River, has 33 years experience in forensic pathology under his belt and 13 years have been spent in Salt River.

He oversees a team of 48 forensic pathology officers and says the busiest times of the month are the middle of the month or pay-day.

“People tend to party more, go out and become more violent,” he said.

Their mortuary can accommodate six pathologists – employed by the provincial Department of Health – who perform autopsies.

The team of forensic officers had to have a close working relationship with the police, Mr Mitten said.

“They go to crime scenes and take photographs. They are the eyes and ears of the pathologists.”

Forensic officers are only called in after police have combed a crime scene. Unless a pathologist is specifically requested to come out they would be accompanied by forensic officers.

Salt River Mortuary handles an intake of close to 370 bodies a month. Most are either victims of murder or traffic accidents.

“Multiple shootings cause us a headache as we have to find all the projectiles,” Mr Mitten said.

Another headache is identifying bodies. “A part of the identification process involves an investigation, which can later be used as evidence in court.”

They used fingerprints and DNA to identify bodies, although DNA results weren’t always conclusive, he said.

“If a person has an ID book and has gone through the registration process, then it is easy to identify that person, but if they haven’t, it becomes a struggle.”

Forensic pathology regional manager Kevin Jones told the Cape Times last month that unidentified bodies were swamping city mortuaries.

Although, by law, health authorities can keep unidentified bodies for up to 30 days, they are kept for longer at the Salt River and Tygerberg mortuaries until the police can identify them.

“We have two containers for each facility. In Salt River we have 200 unknown cases while Tygerberg has 210 cases,” said Mr Jones.

“We are the custodians of the deceased, but it’s up to the police to conduct the investigation and identify the deceased.

“Our forensic pathology services are currently struggling to get DNA feedback from the Forensic Science Laboratory in Plattekloof. This also contributes to cases not being concluded and bodies kept for longer periods at our facilities.” Bodies that remain unidentified get a pauper’s burial.

“The City of Cape Town must authorise the burial of the deceased, graves must be marked and a mortuary record must exist,” Mr Mitten said.

Salt River mortuary is using a refrigerated shipping container to store extra bodies. The mortuary was built in 1957 and was not designed to handle, on average, 4000 bodies a year, Mr Mitten said.

Forensic pathology officer Sheila Hill, 25, of Bishop Lavis, has been at the mortuary for three years. She said she chose the career because human anatomy fascinated her.

“I am enjoying my experience here. Not only am I learning about the different ways that an individual could be harmed, it makes you more aware of the risks out there in the world.”

She copes with the stresses of her job by taking long drives around the city on her days off and shooting short videos.

The new R281 million Observatory Forensic Lab is being built near the entrance to Groote Schuur Hospital (“Forensic Lab construction on track,” Southern Suburbs Tatler, April 12). Projected to open in April next year, it will include 26 autopsy tables and 360 body fridges compared to the 10 autopsy tables and 150 fridges at the existing mortuary.