Reckoning With The Dead: Journalist Goes Inside An NYC COVID-19 Disaster Morgue

May 28, 2020
Originally published on May 28, 2020 3:58 pm

Editor's note: This interview contains graphic details that some readers may find upsetting.

Of the roughly 100,000 Americans included in the official COVID-19 death count, 20,000 died in New York City in a period of two months. Time magazine reporter W.J. Hennigan recently spent several weeks looking into the practical challenge of how a city deals with so many bodies suffused with a deadly pathogen.

Though he spent years as a war reporter, covering conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hennigan says, "Nothing really prepared me for the level of devastation and the amount of death" in New York.

"When you walk into a major U.S. city and you see the sorts of things that they're dealing with — racks of corpses and industrial warehouses full of people dedicated to processing the dead — it's not something that comes natural," he says. "The scale of it is incomparable to anything that we've seen."

Hennigan's story, "'We Do This for the Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort to Bury Its Dead," describes the disaster morgues that have been operating around-the-clock during the pandemic.

"This is not the sort of way that you'd expect your life to end — where you'd be stacked like cordwood in a refrigerated trailer at a marine terminal in Brooklyn," Hennigan says. "There are 200 of these trailers across New York, at every hospital. It's a haunting thing."


Interview Highlights

On the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, a major warehouse complex where the dead are being processed and held

It's essentially a distribution hub, if you can imagine, like an Amazon fulfillment center where trucks come and go, and it's right off of New York's inner harbor and it's opposite the Statue of Liberty, so you can see very clearly across the water. The warehouse complex itself there — there are three of them — and each warehouse building is the size of a football field or larger. And inside each of those are a mix of U.S. service members, state officials, city officials [and] emergency officials, all of them trying to help process the hundreds of bodies that are coming in each day.

In the middle of the main facility, there is a military tent set up, and the bodies come through there on gurneys. The bodies are examined. They are tagged. The information is put into a computer system. Then they are wheeled to a 53-foot tractor-trailer. They're put on a rack. There are three tiers of wooden shelving. Their position on that trailer is documented — just like you would be if you went on an airplane, "Seat 31, row D." ... That trailer is wheeled out to the middle of the parking lot and put there until a funeral director can come pick the body up. ...

All of the ramps and the loading bays and all this sort of thing is purpose-built for the processing of the corpses that are coming through there. It's a hive of activity, and it's being done day and night. They don't close operations. They go 24/7. - W.J. Hennigan

Inside of each of the warehouses, everybody's wearing a hazmat suit, like these hooded jumpsuits that protect them, and wearing gloves and visors. ... There are metal gurneys that are used. All of this has been put together fairly quickly. So all of the ramps and the loading bays and all this sort of thing is purpose-built for the processing of the corpses that are coming through there. It's a hive of activity, and it's being done day and night. They don't close operations. They go 24/7.

On setting up the disaster morgues as an alternative to mass graves

I spent a lot of time with [First Deputy Chief Medical Examiner] Frank DePaolo, who's overseeing all the forensic operations and the COVID response. He's basically orchestrated this plan, which is establishing these emergency morgue units and this hub-and-spoke model of dealing with mass death, because Frank himself, he deals with these sorts of events, these emergency responses all over the world. He's often called in. For instance, when [the] Sandy Hook [school shooting] happened, he was called in to help out with that. When [the] Las Vegas [mass shooting] happened, he was called to help advise the people there. ...

If it wasn't handled this way and if they weren't able to expand all their operations, bodies would have to be buried in a mass grave. I mean, that's just the reality. And people within the death care system told me that ... we were very close to going off the rails here.

On the mass grave on Hart Island where unclaimed bodies go

In the early days of the pandemic they were ... so inundated with corpses that they were just incapable of holding them all. And this is before these emergency disaster morgues were established. There are now four of them across New York City in addition to the five brick-and-mortar facilities that the New York medical examiner's office operates. What the medical examiner had done is said, "We can't hold these corpses any longer. We need to be able to process the new ones that are coming in." And what they settled on was they would hold on to a body for 15 days. And if it wasn't claimed or picked up by a funeral director, it would be sent to Hart Island — which has, for over 100 years, been basically a mass grave where bodies are sent in simple, pine boxes and stacked on top of one another and buried by inmates from Rikers Island. ...

Many bodies have been sent there. ... People are not able to get to their loved ones now; so many, many bodies go unclaimed. Something on the order of six times as many bodies have been sent there since this pandemic started. And that trend continues as people are unable to get out of their houses and claim their loved ones.

On the overwhelming demand on funeral directors

I talked to a number of funeral directors, but the one that I document in the story is John D'Arienzo, who works in Brooklyn. He told me he knows 90% of the decedents that come through his funeral home. ...

So the way that it typically works is that the funeral director is able to pick up the body basically whenever the family wants the body to be picked up. And the situation that they're facing now is they can't even get through to a funeral director. The phone is ringing off the hook, because so many people need the help. And for somebody like John, who knows the people in his neighborhood, who is having to turn away families because he's just so inundated in work, it breaks his heart. The purpose of a funeral director is to help families process death, to help them go through this grieving process. And if you can't even get through the front door, I mean, he feels like he's doing a huge disservice to his community. He says these sort of things with tears in his eyes.

On the New York crematories running round-the-clock

There are only four crematories in New York City and they are heavily regulated because of environmental concerns. Many are in communities, so there are a lot of strictures on the way that they operate. And they were only able to operate ... something like on the order of 12 hours a day, roughly. Because of [COVID-19] and because of the demand, New York loosened the restrictions on that time window, and they were able to operate 24/7. So crematories are now in business all day long. These are big ovens, brick ovens, and they are operating at up to 1,800 degrees, and they're just not supposed to be running for that long. So they need to have time down. But in two cases — out of the four crematories — they had their ovens collapse because of overuse.

On avoiding the death care side of this crisis

There's been a lot of coverage on the front-line health care workers, and I think that makes sense. They make people well, or at least try to. But what's not been really as widely covered or understood, it is the death care side of things. Because the flip side of any pandemic is the death, and how that work is being handled.

I think it's more of a philosophical question of the American psyche, of why we don't reflect on that, the sheer numbers of deaths that we've had in this country. I think there is an expectation and a hope that we get beyond this and maybe we don't want to confront the death. In a lot of ways, maybe we haven't really processed the numbers. I know for a number of people, it was hard to really imagine 100,000 people passing away as a result of this virus until they saw it on the front page of The New York Times, where just 1,000 of the 100,000 names were listed there. It's the same sort of emotion that strikes you when you stand in front of the Vietnam Memorial. We read about these things in textbooks. We've lived through them. But until you see the scope and the scale of this, that's when you get that pit in your stomach.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Of the roughly 100,000 Americans in the official coronavirus death count, 20,000 died in New York City in a period of just two months. Our guest today, Time reporter W.J. Hennigan, recently spent several weeks looking into the practical challenge of how a city deals with that many dead bodies suffused with a deadly pathogen in such a compressed period of time. The question is simple, but the answer revealed in Hennigan's article is shocking.

It's a story of National Guard troops collecting corpses and stacking them in scores of refrigerated trailers, of bodies buried in mass pauper's graves and funeral parlors and crematories so overwhelmed that some stopped answering their phones. Hennigan's story "'We Do This For The Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort To Bury Its Dead" is in Time magazine and is available online at time.com.

W.J. Hennigan covers the Pentagon and national security issues in Washington D.C. for Time. He has reported from more than two dozen countries covering war, counterterrorism and the lives of U.S. service members. Before joining Time in 2017, Hennigan wrote for the Los Angeles Times. He spoke to us on Tuesday from his home near Quantico, Va. And this note to listeners - we will be discussing some of the grim details of this experience in the interview.

Well, W.J. Hennigan, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've been a journalist a long time, including in conflict zones. If you would, just describe some of your reporting experience and how it compared to this work, you know, looking at those who have to deal with the COVID-19 deaths in New York.

WJ HENNIGAN: Well, thanks, Dave, for having me on. Yes, I've covered the military for over a decade, and I've covered the conflicts overseas. I've been to Afghanistan several times. I've been to Iraq several times. I've also covered attacks here in the United States. I've covered the Baltimore riots. All of those things are horrible tragedies, but nothing really prepared me for the level of devastation and the amount of death that we saw in New York City.

I think, you know, as a reporter and you - going into conflict zones, there's a certain expectation for what you're going to see and experience, and I think you kind of silo that information or that experience in your head. But when you walk into a major U.S. city and you see the sorts of things that they're dealing with - racks of corpses and industrial warehouses full of people dedicated to processing the dead - it's not something that comes natural. And I think that was the hardest thing for me to kind of wrap my arms around, initially.

But then after day after day, you're dealing - you're seeing this sort of thing, and it becomes almost clinical in the way that they're proceeding.

DAVIES: Well, before we get into the details of what you saw - which are powerful - tell us a bit about why you and Time decided to look deeply into this and how you approached it.

HENNIGAN: Right. So I - as you stated at the outset, I cover the military, and I found out through my coverage that the National Guard had something called FSRT our team, which is a fatality, search and recovery team. They were out with the New York officials that were recovering the dead from homes and hospitals, and I wanted to know more about that. Having done this a number of times, I just wanted to go embed with them.

And they were not able to facilitate that at first. I had to go through the New York City medical examiner's office. And the medical examiner's office doesn't even deal with the press that often. If they do, they do it at arm's length. So the idea that they would invite a reporter in with them to see how they're processing this, at an unprecedented time - you know, historical in the way that they're going about it - was unusual, to say the least, for them. A lot of them were uncomfortable with speaking with me.

But as a reporter, once you're there, people start loosening up and opening up about their business. And going into the operations floors and going along on the ride-alongs to witness what they're doing, you also build trust that way.

DAVIES: So let's talk about what you saw. You write about the Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which was this place that took in all kinds of, you know, maritime freight but has now sort of been converted to a makeshift morgue. Just describe what you see there, what goes on.

HENNIGAN: Right. So it's essentially a distribution hub. If you can imagine, like, a Amazon fulfillment center, where, you know, trucks come and go. And it's right off of New York's inner harbor, and it's opposite the Statue of Liberty - is that you can see very clearly across the water. The warehouse complex itself, there are three of them, and each warehouse building is the size of a football field or larger. And inside each of those are a mix of U.S. service members, state officials, city officials, emergency officials - all of them trying to help process the hundreds of bodies that are coming in each day.

DAVIES: Yeah, describe what that processing is. What happens there?

HENNIGAN: So every day, morning to night, there are teams that go out. They - these are collection teams or recovery teams. And they go out to homes or hospitals or retirement homes, and they pick up corpses. And they go in these nondescript - they're black trucks. They go pick up the dead, sometimes four at a time, load them in the back and then drive them into this facility where they offload them.

In the middle of the main facility, there's a military tent set up, and the bodies come through there on gurneys. The bodies are examined. They are tagged. The information is put into a computer system.

Then they are wheeled to a 53-foot tractor trailer. They're put on a rack. There are three tiers of wooden shelving. Their position on that trailer is documented, just like you would be if you went on an airplane - you know, seat 31, row D. And they are - that position is documented so they know where to find them once that trailer is wheeled out to the middle of the parking lot and put there until a funeral director can come pick the body up.

DAVIES: Right. So there are these dozens of these tractor trailers with their motors running so the generators can keep the refrigeration units going. In the warehouses themselves, what do you see, like, dozens of gurneys on a floor with people bent over the bodies? Or what does it look like?

HENNIGAN: So inside of each of the warehouses, there are - everybody's wearing, like, a hazmat suit, like, these hooded jumpsuits that protect them and, you know, wearing gloves and visors, of course. The gurneys are, yeah, metal gurneys that are used. And there are - you know, all of this has been put together fairly quickly. So all of the ramps and the loading bays and all this sort of thing is purpose-built for the processing of the corpses that are coming through there. It's a hive of activity, and it's being done day and night. I mean, they've don't close operations. They go 24/7.

DAVIES: So to get a sense of the scale of this, it's these dozens of tractor trailers, each of which have how many bodies?

HENNIGAN: So they were originally built to have 45 bodies inside the trailers. But because of the scale, they need - they'd realize very quickly that they needed more capacity. So they contracted carpenters to build these wooden shelves. So now they have three tiers of shelves on either side, on the left and right, that stretches down the length of the trailer. And yes, there are rows of them. I mean, they're lined up in neat rows. If you were going by - if you're driving by, if you were walking by - you might just assume that this was some sort of distribution hub, you know, where these trailers are just sitting on stilts. You might wonder why these engines are growling and that sort of thing. But they are each, you know, filled with up to 90 bodies a piece.

DAVIES: Did you go into one of these trailers?

HENNIGAN: I went into one of the trailers. Yes, I did.

DAVIES: What did it feel like in there?

HENNIGAN: It's eerie. It really gives you the sort of feeling that, you know, you've walked into a new reality, you know? This is not the sort of way that you'd expect your life to end, you know, where you'd be stacked like cordwood in a refrigerated trailer at a marine terminal in Brooklyn. I don't think any American expects that's how their life is going to come to an end there. And then when you think about that there are 200 of these trailers across New York at every hospital, it's a haunting thing.

DAVIES: Yeah. I was just thinking about how you kind of can't grasp the scale of this tragedy, the number of people dying. But if you're in a enclosed space with 90 body bags, I guess you begin to get a feel for it.

HENNIGAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, not everybody gets to see what I was able to have access to as a reporter. And I think that's, you know, why it makes it easier for people to kind of dismiss, you know, the orders that we've been given by the CDC - wearing a mask, staying inside - as being overbearing as a government. But when you see it face to face, and as these folks that I work - you know, that I was embedded with who work with this every day, you get a new view on that.

It's very real. And the scale of it is incomparable to anything that we've seen. One of the things that always came up because, you know, we're in New York City, is 9/11. And a lot of the workers, indeed, they worked on the emergency response for the 9/11 attacks. And in fact, many of the facilities that I was in were also used to help process the remains for 9/11. But 9/11 is seven time - you know, there were 3,000 people that died in 9/11, roughly. And here, we have a scale of 20,000.

So - and the death is limited to a regional place, Manhattan. Here, it's widespread. It's everywhere. When you work like that and that's - you know, this is their reality now, it changes the way that you view this, this virus. When you're sitting inside all day and watching the news or whatever you're doing, there's no way to have that sort of view on this sort of thing until you're there and you see it up front.

DAVIES: And how long will a body stay in one of these refrigerated tractor trailers?

HENNIGAN: For now, it's a matter of weeks. When I was there, it was a month or more. I understand that that's since been lessened. But the thing about that is that they never had such a waitlist before. That never existed. If a funeral director wanted to - was seeking a body, you'd be able to pick them up directly. And now they're there for a month or more.

DAVIES: W.J. Hennigan covers the Pentagon and national security issues for Time. His story about New York City coping with the bodies of 20,000 COVID-19 victims in a two-month period appeared in Time magazine and is available online at time.com. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN SONG, "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with W.J. Hennigan. He covers the Pentagon and national security issues for time. He spent a month in New York City doing a story about how they are coping with the bodies of so many COVID-19 victims who have died there over a two-month period. That story is available in Time magazine and at time.com. And a note to listeners - we are going to be discussing some of the grim details of this work in the interview.

You spent some time with people who were doing this work from the medical examiner's office and from National Guard units. And, I think, there was at least one person in the medical examiner's office who had worked on the 9/11 recovery who felt compelled to come and help here. You want to tell us about that?

HENNIGAN: Right. So I spent a lot of time with Frank DePaolo, who's overseeing all the forensic operations in the COVID response. And, you know, he's basically orchestrated this plan, which is establishing these four emergency morgue units and this hub-and-spoke model of dealing with mass death, because Frank, himself, he deals with these sorts of events, these emergency response, all over the world. You know, he's often called in. For instance, you know, when Sandy Hook happened, he was called in to help out with that. When Las Vegas happened, he was called to help, you know, advise people there.

DAVIES: Part of the title for your article is "We Do This For The Living." Where does that come from?

HENNIGAN: Frank DePaolo said that. You know, we were walking - he was walking me through one of the morgues that they have there, the loading bay where - the intake facility, they call it - where the bodies are coming through. And, you know, I was asking him, why did you do it this way? Or, you know, why - what necessitated this? And he said to me, you know, we don't do this for the dead, you know? We do this for the living.

And that - I felt that that was a very poetic way to put it. And I - it made sense, you know? I hadn't thought of it that way - that that's why they were trying to do this in a manageable way because if it wasn't handled this way and if they weren't able to expand all this - all their operations, bodies would have to be buried in a mass grave. I mean, that's just the reality. And people within this system, in the death care system, told me that, which is, we were very close to going off the rails here. And because of this emergency response, you know - people may not have the funeral that they want, they may not be able to have the sort of closure that they want, and they're not getting it, but at least it's something. They have a moment to remember their loved one by.

DAVIES: Going off the rails would mean thousands in mass graves?

HENNIGAN: The way that I understood that - you know, when I talked to the director of the New York cemeteries association, you know, he described that the system was very close to going off the rails. And I said, well, what does that mean? And he says, you know, mass graves. You know, basically, we would have to go into a clinical operation where we would just have to process the corpses in a way that we can keep up the bandwidth to keep up with the dead. And what that meant was mass burials, mass graves.

DAVIES: If someone has a family member who has been processed and put in one of these refrigerator trucks and they want to retrieve the body for a burial or cremation, how do they do it? What happens?

HENNIGAN: Well, they'll contact a funeral director. And the funeral director will, you know, no doubt have done this hundreds of times. The funeral director contacts the OCME, medical examiner's office. And they let them know the personal information of the decedent. And they - OCME retrieves the body for them. You know, they provide them a day where they can come pick the body up.

DAVIES: So the funeral director gets a vehicle, comes over and they find it in the tractor trailer. And they extricate it. And they take it away.

HENNIGAN: They have a turnaround - almost like a drive-through - for funeral directors to come through at the marine terminal. They'll drive through. And the medical examiner's office will have the body ready, prepared for it to be taken away.

DAVIES: And you wrote in the piece that if bodies are not claimed by someone after two weeks, they go to a pauper's grave on Hart Island, which sounds like something out of a Dickens novel. Just describe this, would you?

HENNIGAN: Right. So in the early days of the pandemic, they were having - they were so inundated with corpses that they were just incapable of holding them all. And this was before these emergency disaster morgues were established. There are now four of them across New York City in addition to the five brick-and-mortar facilities that the New York medical examiner's office operates. What the medical examiner had done was said, we can't hold these corpses any longer. We need to be able to process the new ones that are coming in.

And what they settled on was they would hold onto a body for 15 days. And if it wasn't claimed or picked up by a funeral director, it would be sent to Hart Island, which has, for over 100 years, been a - it's basically a mass grave where bodies are sent in simple, pine boxes and stacked on top of one another and buried by inmates from Riker's Island. This sort of dystopian scene was expected to unfold. But that was before they were able to establish these emergency morgues across the city.

DAVIES: Right. So once they got all of these refrigerated tractor trailers up, they could keep bodies for longer than that. But there was a period where they were simply going to the pauper's graves.

HENNIGAN: That's right. And indeed, many bodies have been sent there. I think it's something to the order - there was reporting from The Washington Post that six times the number of bodies that would typically been sent to Hart Island - because Hart Island - the unclaimed bodies will be buried there anyway. That's just the purpose of Hart Island.

And people are not able to get to their loved ones now. So many bodies go unclaimed. And something on the order of six times as many bodies have been sent there since this pandemic started. And that trend continues as people are unable to get out of their houses and claim their loved ones.

DAVIES: So do we have any idea how many COVID-19 victims are there in these pauper graves on Hart Island?

HENNIGAN: We don't know that. One of the things that I saw over and over again that people told me there was that, you know, they just simply don't - not everybody gets tested. A lot of people that they pull out of houses, they're not able to test. I mean, these people have been dead for two weeks or more. The only reason that people know that they're dead is because their neighbors smell their decomposing bodies next door. So these people may have died from COVID. But they were just never - there's no documentation on that fact.

DAVIES: W.J. Hennigan covers the Pentagon and national security issues for Time. His story "'We Do This For A Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort To Bury Its Dead (ph)" appeared in Time magazine and is available online at time.com. We'll talk some more after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "TROCANDO EM MIUDOS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with W.J. Hennigan of Time about his article on how New York City struggled to cope with 20,000 deaths from the coronavirus in a period of just two months. His story "'We Do This For The Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort To Bury Its Dead" was published in Time magazine and is now available online at time.com. And I'll just note to listeners - we will be discussing some of the grim details of this work in our interview.

It is, I guess, shocking that, in 2020, so many people would remain in houses, unaccounted for, until neighbors smell corpses beginning to decompose. And you say some bodies also arrived that are simply unidentified. How does this happen? Under what circumstances does this occur?

HENNIGAN: Well, some people die in alleyways. They don't have any identification on them. Other times, people have passed away and their nearest relatives are identified and called and they just don't have the money to be able to set up a funeral, so they allow them to be sent to Hart Island for the mass grave. Other times, people - they identify family members too late. You know, family members don't realize, oh, there's a time limit on such a thing, and they are unable to claim the bodies before they are already sent to Hart Island.

What you referenced about neighbors smelling the decomposing bodies, I mean, that's - that was something that was really striking to me. That was like being in a war zone there - right? - where, you know, there's no sort of humanity there, where people are dying in their own homes. Neighbors aren't seeing one another because they're - have stay-at-home orders, so it's not strange to not see your neighbor for a few weeks.

When I was out there, it was abnormally warm. I think it was in the 80s. And the people who were doing that work, you know, rather than talking about how nice it was on a spring day, you know, their reality was, oh, it's warmer out here, so more neighbors are going to be able to smell their neighbors next door decomposing.

DAVIES: So the National Guard has been called upon to help here. Just explain what they're doing, how they're deployed.

HENNIGAN: Right. So National Guard are part-time soldiers, right? So these are, you know, postmen, they're police officers, who do this sort of work part time. You know, they're called into service. The Guardsmen are doing all sorts of work. I mean, they're helping process tests. They're helping move supplies. But one of the things that I've - that I experienced, the team that I was embedded with, they were driving to houses and picking up dead bodies out of homes. They've been doing that work for approximately two months, once New York City was overwhelmed and incapable of handling the number of cases that they're handling.

DAVIES: Right. They would work in three-person teams, long shifts, I guess. What were some of the things that they saw that they found troubling?

HENNIGAN: They've seen everything, Dave. I mean, not only are they handling the COVID cases, some of which - folks have been dead for quite a while, as we previous discussed. But they're also handling murder cases, and they're handling heart attack cases. Because the city is so overwhelmed, they're not capable of doing this sort of work themselves. And this - you know, these guys are not battle-hardened combat veterans.

You know, they're also going into hoarders' apartments, of people who, you know, have stuff all over their apartments, and they're trying to figure out ways - how they can get this body out. They've also talked about going into walk-up apartments and going down the stairs and figuring out, you know, the geometry of how they can get the body out or elevators that are out. And all of this is happening, of course, while family members may be in the home or their neighbors. On the ride-alongs that I went, they're - you know, the neighbors are always - faces in the windows, looking at this really strange scene that's unfolding out on their street.

To say that it's a change is really - doesn't do it service. I mean, this is a brand-new reality for these guys, and they deal with it face to face on 12-hour shifts every day.

DAVIES: You also spoke to funeral home directors who deal with this in more normal times and who were badly overwhelmed by the scale of this tragedy. First of all, maybe just explain how it would normally work in a neighborhood when a family member dies and a funeral director assists the family, where the body would go, how it all happens.

HENNIGAN: So I talked to a number of funeral directors, but the one that I document in the story is John D'Arienzo, who works in Brooklyn. And, you know, he's - as he told me, he knows 90% of his - the decedents that comes through his funeral home. And, you know, they call - say if somebody dies on a Wednesday, you know, he'll take custody that day or on Thursday and, you know, you'd have a wake or a visitation on a Friday. So it's that quick of a turnaround.

So the way that it typically works is that the funeral director is able to pick up the body basically whenever the family wants the body to be picked up. In the situation that they're facing now, is, like, they can't even get through to a funeral director. The phone is ringing off the hook because so many people need the help.

And for somebody like John, who, you know, knows the people in his neighborhood, who's having to turn away families because he's just so inundated in work, I mean, it's - it breaks his heart. You know, the purpose of a funeral director is to help families process death, to help them go through this grieving process. And if you can't even get through the front door - I mean, he feels like he's doing a huge disservice to his community. He says these sort of things with tears in his eyes.

DAVIES: Yeah, this particular funeral home, you said, it's been owned in his family for three generations. And there's a standing pledge to help every mourning family, who needs care. What's his current experience?

HENNIGAN: So when this really started hitting, the - his phone was ringing so much he had to take it off the hook. He had to lock his front door. He does something on the order of seven funerals a month, typically. You know, he did 10 times that in April. And he has - you know, he never had a long-term storage facility - you know, what we'd know as a morgue - on his small funeral parlor. But he had so many bodies in there - he had up to six at a time - that he had to turn a spare room into a storage facility to be able to hold the bodies before he could embalm them or prep them for cremation. His whole world has been turned upside down.

He had a chapel, you know, that was at the front of the building that would be there for, you know, a prayer or two so people can have a moment of silence before they go visit their loved one; that had all been repurposed into an equipment room, essentially, where, you know, they have these cremation boxes, which are long, thin cardboard boxes that bodies are put in before they're sent to the crematory. You know, those were stacked to the ceiling. He had PPE, you know, these face masks and plastic gloves and booties and all this sorts of stuff. He had that stacked to your waist.

DAVIES: In the chapel. Right. Right.

HENNIGAN: Right.

DAVIES: Right.

HENNIGAN: So this was all totally upending his business. And, you know, as I said before, you know, he wants to help people. He wants to be able to provide that moment of closure for families. But, you know, he can't even have the visitation or wake as they typically would have it. Folks can only come in in what they call an identity service, where folks come in for about 15 minutes, and they have to be social distanced. They have to have masks on. This is a totally alien experience for funeral directors.

DAVIES: Right. And the space where he would store bodies, I mean, I think you said - I don't know how many - 10; I guess fewer than 10, but a number of bodies - it wasn't refrigerated, right? What did he do about preserving them?

HENNIGAN: So he had to flip on a cooling system, and he has fans on in there. And, you know, he couldn't have bodies in there for more than a day before they'd have to be out because they would decompose back there. So, you know, he's working double time. He lives in the house next door. So he'd be rolling out of bed doing this sort of work in the parlor, you know, till 10:00 at night and, you know, come back home, you know, eat dinner and go to bed and do it all over again in the morning.

DAVIES: And so he would move the bodies out after one day. He would, I guess - where would they go?

HENNIGAN: Right. So after he prepares the bodies, they would have - the next day, for instance, they would have a proper visitation where that - you know, these families would only be able to come in for about 15 minutes, but they would be there. They would have at least something, at least something to have for their loved one. And then they would - you know, they would go off to the cemetery or the crematory, where they would have their final resting place.

So, you know, every day, he'd be picking up new bodies, and he would be going through this sort of cycle - right? - where they would have this - have a body in. He'd have to get them ready in a day. They would have that ceremony. And then they would be out again.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. W.J. Hennigan covers the Pentagon and national security issues for Time, and he recently wrote about New York City coping with the bodies of 20,000 COVID-19 victims in roughly a two-month period. His story is available at Time magazine and online at time.com. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with W.J. Hennigan. He normally covers the Pentagon and national security issues for time, but he recently spent a month in New York City reporting on how the city is coping with the bodies of as many as 20,000 COVID-19 victims over a two-month period. You can find that story at time.com and in Time magazine. And a note to listeners - we are going to be discussing some of the grim details of this work in the interview.

You know, just looking at this from the point of view of a family, if you have a loved one who dies and you call the local funeral homes and you can't get anyone to answer the phone, what do those folks do?

HENNIGAN: Well, many folks are deciding to opt for cremation now as opposed to a proper funeral. One of the - I spoke with Fabiola Reyes, whose father died of COVID, a 49-year-old taxi driver. And, you know, she's - a Catholic Ecuadorian family. And they wanted to have that proper ceremony, but, you know, it just - it was not possible. So she opted for cremation. And that means, you know, you can hold the body for an extended amount of time, right? So it was roughly a month before she was able to get her father's ashes from the crematory because they were backlogged. And again, that's something that the crematories will tell you that they've never experienced.

DAVIES: Right. But just - so if I decide I want to opt for cremation, who do I call? I mean, does...

HENNIGAN: Well, the funeral directors are typically the ones that pick them up and drive them to the crematories. Or they are - you know, because funeral directors were so inundated, they changed a law in New York where they were able to deputize individuals as funeral directors. So there's a professor up in Canton who was driving bodies for - on behalf of funeral directors to crematories in - as far as Vermont and Pennsylvania and Connecticut, where they're a little less overwhelmed.

DAVIES: And so crematories that were also overwhelmed with the demand for their services, what were conditions like there?

HENNIGAN: So there are only four crematories in New York City, and they are, you know, heavily regulated because of environmental concerns and, you know, many are in communities. So there is a lot of strictures on the way that they operate. And they are only able to operate from, you know, about something like on the order of 12 hours a day, roughly. Because of COVID and because of the demand, New York loosened the restrictions on that time window, and they were able to operate 24/7.

So crematories are now, you know, up - they're in business all day long. You know, these are big ovens, brick ovens, and they are operating at up to 1,800 degrees, and, you know, they're just not supposed to be running for that long, right? So they need to have time down. But in two cases, out of the four crematories, they had their ovens collapse because of overuse.

DAVIES: Wow. The ovens themselves actually broke?

HENNIGAN: Yes, the ovens were used so much that they simply broke down.

DAVIES: You know, I'm struck as I read the story about how little known what you were writing here is in a nation that is so obsessed with the virus. I mean, in many respects, it dominates all of our lives. But somehow these deaths are more anonymous. You know, just last week, in The New York Times - covered its front page with lists of victims. And the president did lower flags to half-staff over the holiday weekend, although he hasn't said a lot about the victims of COVID-19. And I'm just - I'm wondering what your thoughts are on the role of a more public national mourning when we have a crisis like this.

HENNIGAN: Right. I think that, you know, there's been a lot of coverage on health care - the frontline health care workers, and I think that that's - you know, that makes sense, right? They make people well or at least try to. But under - what's not been really as widely covered or understood is the death care side of things because, you know, the flipside of any pandemic is the death and how that work is being handled.

I think it's more of a philosophical question of just, you know, the American psyche of why we don't reflect on that, on the part of the sheer numbers of deaths that we've had in this country. I think there's a expectation and a hope that we get beyond this. And maybe we don't want to confront the death. And in a lot of ways, maybe we haven't really processed the numbers.

You know, I know for a number of people, it was hard to really imagine 100,000 people passing away as a result of this virus until they saw it on the front page of The New York Times, where, you know, just a thousand of the 100,000 names were listed there. It's the same sort of emotion that strikes you when you stand in front of the Vietnam Memorial, where we read about these things in textbooks or we've lived through them. But until you see the scope and the scale of this, you know, that's when you get that pit in your stomach.

DAVIES: Well, W.J. Hennigan, thank you so much for your reporting and for speaking with us. Stay safe.

HENNIGAN: Thank you, Dave. My pleasure.

DAVIES: W.J. Hennigan covers the Pentagon and national security issues for Time. His story "'We Do This For The Living.' Inside New York's Citywide Effort To Bury Its Dead" appeared in Time magazine and is available online at time.com.

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DAVIES: Coming up, John Powers reviews the new AMC series "Quiz." This is FRESH AIR.

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