COVID Victims’ Bodies Still in Refrigerated Trucks on NYC Pier

"1209296037" (CC BY 2.0) by Ninian Reid

More than a year after the Coronavirus pandemic hit NYC, bodies of hundreds of New Yorkers are still sitting in a refrigerated morgue on the Brooklyn waterfront. 

On Wednesday, a medical official told a City Council committee meeting that there are around 750 remains sitting in the specially designed disaster morgue that New York City had opened in April. 

Executive deputy commissioner of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, Dina Maniotis stated that the facility was initially set up to provide families extra time. However, the arrangement was always intended to be only temporary. 

Maniotis told the City Council’s Committee on Health, “In the very near future, we will begin to notify all the families that we’ve been working with that we are now going to ramp our operations down slowly, give them the time that they need, and we’ll keep the operation going as they need it.”

Families of many of the dead still in long-term storage have asked that the city bury their remains on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field. Meanwhile, according to Maniotis, families of others have fallen out of contact with the city.

However, questions were raised as to why there are still so many bodies that were in storage, when the families had already asked for the burial on Hart. 

City Councilman Mark Gjonaj (D-Bronx) said, “Why are we delaying that any longer than we have to?” 

Gjonaj added, that “storage” was a terrible word to use when talking about the dead. However, he stated that the city had the capacity elsewhere. 

In the early days of the pandemic in the region, the city took the unprecedented step of placing bodies in cold storage as morgues, hospitals, and funeral homes were overwhelmed with the number of deaths. The bodies were put in packed refrigerated trucks.

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The emergency morgue was then set up on the 39th Street Pier in the Sunset Park neighborhood. Then in 2020, it was storing over 1,300 bodies at a time, victims of COVID-19 as well as other deceased. 

Hart Island in the Long Island Sound, the nation’s largest public cemetery, is the final resting place of many of the city’s unclaimed dead. There are more than 1 million people buried there, officials said at the committee meeting.

Last year, the island saw a spike in burials, with 2,666 laid to rest in the area in the year 2020. Although there are usually around 1,200 burials annually, Maniotis said. 

Maniotis said. There have been 504 burials so far this year, she added. She continued that the city is in the process of transferring jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The bodies remain in limbo while families decide how they want their loved ones buried or come up with the money to pay for funerals. The city said there is no time limit on when they must be removed.