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Coroners, Morticians Train for Mass Death Disaster

Updated: Thursday, April 24 2014, 05:56 PM CDT
CENTRAL ILLINOIS --- It wasn't rescue operations or first aid the course attendees were learning about.

"It's mass death," said the course's organizer, Stephen Born.

Gathered on the 10-year anniversary of the Formosa plant explosion, dozens of coroners and funeral home directors showed up at the state fairgrounds to get certified in mass fatality planning and response. A mass fatality could be any disaster - a fire, tornado, plague or terrorist attack - that results in more than authorities can handle.

Since there are any number of possible disaster scenarios, the training focused on how to work with FEMA and other agencies. Coroners and morticians are no strangers to death, but an event with possibly dozens of bodies is something else entirely.

"A mass fatality response does take you to a new place. It's not like day to day operations," said the course's instructor, Arbie Goings.

Goings is a funeral home director who has been on scene at disasters that include September 11, multiple plane crashes and Hurricane Katrina. Living outside Baton Rouge, Goings experienced that for himself.

"I literally sat on my back patio and watched it blow through," he said of the hurricane. "And then these were my friends and neighbors that were affected."

In Springfield and the surrounding area, there have been fires, tornadoes and shootings. But aside from the Formosa plant explosion, there's not much that could possibly be called a mass fatality event. Still, preparation is key.

"We just want to be prepared if a plane did go down in our county we would know what to do," Born said.

Hopefully the training will pay off.

"The bottom line is, when you get there, it's almost like muscle memory," said Sangamon County Chief Deputy Coroner Jim Allmon. "You train and train, and it takes over."

Goings said the physical demands are the hardest part of a mass fatality event. Neither he nor anybody he knew had any "great mental distress" from working a mass fatality event, he said.

Still, a gruesome scene can affect even the most experienced mortician.

"We're human just like anybody else," Goings said. "And to be around that much human grief certainly can break your heart." Coroners, Morticians Train for Mass Death Disaster

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