ShareThis Page
Former NUMEC worker’s body to be exhumed |

Former NUMEC worker’s body to be exhumed

| Wednesday, June 11, 2008 12:00 a.m

KITTANNING — An Armstrong County judge has ordered the exhumation of a West Leechburg woman who died 40 years ago to determine the cause of death and answer questions about her exposure to radiation and other contaminants.

Catherine Tira, of Bethel Township, petitioned the Armstrong County Orphans Court to exhume the body of her mother, the late Pauline Sulava. She succumbed to acute congestive failure in 1967 at 44. Acute congestive failure refers to the rapid build-up of fluid in one or more organs, causing them to fail.

Judge James J. Panchik approved the petition Tuesday, ordering an autopsy and re-interment of Sulava’s body. She is buried at St. Catherine Cemetery in Gilpin.

According to Tira, her mother complained about exposure to radiation and other contaminants as a worker in the mid-1960s at the defunct Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) in Apollo.

Tira wants to know if that exposure could have caused or contributed to her death.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht will conduct the autopsy, which is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

According to two federal agencies, Sulava might become the first case in the country where the body of a former nuclear worker is exhumed to prove illness in order to collect on a $150,000 claim from the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

The federal entitlement program offers money and medical benefits to workers of atomic weapons employers — or their survivors — who develop one of 22 cancers and other illnesses associated with workplace exposures. Tira’s attorney, Jim Irwin of Leechburg, said he was struck by how healthy Sulava looked in old pictures.

“She died of acute congestive failure with only a 24-hour interval between onset and death,” Irwin said. “It’s very odd that somebody that young died in that short of time.”

An autopsy was not conducted when Sulava died because her father, the late John Sulava, was so distraught, according to Tira.

But an autopsy conducted 40 years later is a gambit, with results resting on the condition of the body.

“I hope that intellectually and professionally, I will be able to have materials and tissues available — that is a concern,” said Wecht. “I have been surprised and positive, and also surprised and disappointed,” he said of previous autopsies with older corpses.

The type of casket and vault as well as embalming procedures, even the type of soil and topography of the cemetery affect decomposition, according to Wecht.

Wecht hopes to find soft tissue to determine if there are tumors and to identify the type of tumor.

Cancers can be identified in bones.

“Here we’re talking about soft tissues and sufficient maintenance of some degree of anatomical integrity to see what is here,” Wecht said. “Tissues decompose and shrink. It’s far different than looking for bullets and skull fractures.”

Sulava’s body will be exhumed in the next few weeks.

Wecht could not comment on when results would be available since the breadth of testing has not been determined, pending the condition of the remains.

If Sulava’s employment at NUMEC was the cause of or contributed to her death, Tira said that her family would be entitled to something.

As she battles cancer herself, Tira, 66, is looking for closure.

“I’m certainly not doing this for my ‘Hawaiian vacation.’ If they find cancer, then the money will go to my estate,” Tira said. “If anything comes of it — OK. If it doesn’t, it’s not like we didn’t try to find an answer.”

Categories: News
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.