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County morgue readies move to Strip District |

County morgue readies move to Strip District

| Friday, October 17, 2008 12:00 p.m

The last time the Allegheny County morgue moved, workers put down tracks and slid the landmark granite building across the street.

Now, 79 years later, the Medical Examiner’s Office is near the end of a much windier path to a new location.

Officials are planning for what could be a week-long move, taking delicate scientific equipment, crucial evidence and bodies across town this winter to a Strip District facility. The $24.5 million plan to combine the morgue and crime lab is occurring more than six years after its initial announcement and after several plans were nixed.

It leaves officials the task of finding use for the Gothic-style mortuary on Fourth Street — complete with an unfinished chapel on the top floor and a “decomposition cooler” in its basement. The county Law Department and one other department likely will move there.

“That would make me a little shaky,” county public works employee John McBrier said about the prospect of moving into the building.

What originally was the coroner’s office was built to be part of a virtual fortress of county offices Downtown more than a century ago. The crime lab across the street is in what used to be the basement bomb shelter of the County Office Building, lab manager Robert M. Huston said.

That left both offices short on space as officials tried to keep pace with a boom in forensic technology. The Medical Examiner’s Office has one less cooler than it needs, and can run tight on space to store the dead, said Chief Investigator Edward Strimlan.

In the firearms lab, an open cardboard box sits against a wall, appearing like storage with several phone books poking over the brim. However, there are about a dozen bullet-sized holes spread over the side of the box.

“There’s our rifle range: several phone books and a Kevlar vest,” Huston said as he stood a few feet away, next to a lab worker’s desk.

The new lab on 16th Street between Penn and Liberty avenues is being specially designed for the modern needs of both offices, to allow for easy moving of bodies and securing of evidence, officials said. With 78,000 square feet, it should be a little less than twice the size of the current setup.

Included is a much-needed third cooler for bodies and a new “autopsy suite” with an air recycling system in lieu of the current patchwork of air conditioners, Strimlan said. The crime labs will be organized in a row and include their own evidence storage, said Steve Pilarski, manager of administration.

Some suburban police recently started their own fingerprinting labs because of a backlog at the county lab. Robinson police Chief Dale Vietmeier, president of the county Chiefs of Police Association, lauded the new lab for its accessibility, saying police will have easy parking.

“It’s a beautiful state-of-the-art facility,” he said. “I think it benefits everybody.”

Former county Executive Jim Roddey suggested the move in 2002. He wanted an eight-story complex for all the county labs costing as much as $65 million. He said the county could spend $8 million and let the state cover the rest, but Executive Dan Onorato’s administration killed the proposal because of the expense.

The county went through at least three plans, Strimlan said. One would have been to expand the current morgue into its top-floor chapel. Once built for families awaiting word on their loved ones, it is unused with an unfinished floor behind a temporary wall.

The whole building could be vacant by year’s end. The county has control of the new facility starting Dec. 30.

The move should take four to seven days, with a day or so of dual operations, Pilarski said. The morgue will be the last to close and the bodies the last to move, after officials pack evidence into boxes, shrink-wrapping some of it before a police escort guides trucks of it all across town. Bodies can be moved within one day, he added.

“More people are worried about our bodies than I can believe,” Strimlan said.

Renovations at the morgue will likely not happen within the next year. Solicitor Michael Wojcik said the move could be a good way to consolidate his department in one place, and wouldn’t mind replacing the building’s previous residents.

“I think my office is haunted presently: the ghost of past solicitors. (The move) doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s a beautiful old building. It has a very interesting past.”

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