Former NUMEC worker’s body to be exhumed
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.”