DC Woman May Have Been Alive at Morgue

Paramedics arrived and "obviously thought the person was dead," said a DC Fire Department spokesman.


WASHINGTON (AP) -- A woman thought to be dead showed evidence of a pulse after her body had been placed in a bag, taken to the city morgue and stored in a refrigerated box by officials from the medical examiner's office.

Deborah Wilson, 49, was found Friday morning in her apartment bedroom, apparently suffering from cardiac arrest. According to a document obtained by The Washington Post and reported Thursday, an investigator who removed Wilson's body from the cooler to declare her dead instead detected a slight pulse.

What happened between the 911 call and four hours later when Wilson was finally pronounced dead remains in dispute. She may have been alive after she was placed in a morgue cooler, and normal procedures for determining whether a person is alive or dead and should be taken to the hospital or morgue were not followed, the Post reported.

The first call for help came into the D.C. fire department at 10:59 a.m. from the security office in Wilson's building, according to fire officials. Maintenance men doing fuse box work apparently entered Wilson's sixth-floor apartment and found the woman kneeling beside her bed, the woman's family told the paper.

Wilson, who was disabled and unemployed, lived alone in her apartment in the large, multistory building.

Paramedics arrived and ``obviously thought the person was dead,'' said fire department spokesman Alan Etter. They called the medical examiner's office, who dispatched a team to retrieve the body, according to interviews.

The medical examiner's team arrived at 1:30 p.m., found police and two family members, and Wilson ``on her knees like she was praying,'' according to a source on the scene. When the body was removed from the bed, ``she sighed and she moaned,'' the source told the Post.

The supervisor from the medical examiner's office heard the noises and said, ``It's just aspirations. No big deal,'' the source was quoted as saying.

The newspaper said the decision to take Wilson to the morgue was made without the usual input of an investigator from the medical examiner's office - because no investigator showed up.

Wilson's body arrived at the morgue and was placed on a cart in ``the box,'' a refrigerator that holds about four dozen bodies. At 2:40 p.m., a physician's assistant removed the body from the cooler to legally declare Wilson dead, according to a written report by investigator Mary Beth Petrasek, which was obtained by the Post.

A second official confirmed that she too felt a faint pulse, Petrasek wrote.

Petrasek checked for a pulse again and ``a pulse was still felt,'' according to the report. The medical examiner's staff called D.C. paramedics, and Wilson was placed on a cardiac monitor but showed no heart activity, D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden said. She was formally pronounced dead at 3 p.m.

``It's a shock,'' Clarissa Cuffee, Wilson's niece, told the Post. ``We have no idea what's going on.''