Coroner sees his job as caring for the living

January 26, 2007 

David Perry/Staff

Gary Ginn

On that Sunday morning, only a few hours after the plane had crashed, Gary Ginn knew for certain something all the rest of us feared.

He knew someone on the plane. It was Les Morris, the first person to contribute money to Ginn's efforts to win the coroner job in Fayette County in 2002. Morris had called Ginn out of the blue one day because Ginn's mother, a court clerk in Trimble County, had bragged on her son to Morris, an attorney.

In retrieving the bodies from the plane, Ginn did not try to find Morris. He had full confidence everyone would be identified. He kept what he knew to himself. His mourning could wait.

Gary Ginn had been putting on his church clothes before 7 that Sunday morning. He and his wife help out at the Broadway Christian Church worship services, and 7 really isn't all that early for them.

He had answered his phone, listened, then changed into his work boots and driven out Versailles Road to begin a case he will not likely finish for years.

On what the Fayette County coroner calls "a pasture by the airport," the burning fuselage of Comair 5191 had come to rest near a fence row a few minutes before dawn on Aug. 27, 2006.

Ginn could immediately smell superheated jet fuel and everything it had ignited, burned, melted and killed.

It was "eerie," he says, mentioning the incongruence of the Windex-colored sky and the smoke-shrouded gash in the ground.

"Airplanes are supposed to be in the sky," he thought to himself before he took out a notebook and began to write things down.

For many long days after that, Ginn would go to bed around 1 a.m., setting his alarm for 4 a.m. In between he would wake a few times but not because his dreams were horror shows but because they were filled with lists of all the things he still had to do.

'A tough year'

This has been a busy year for the coroner of a reasonably well-behaved middle-sized American town. The numbers don't shout it -- the coroner's office has only seen a small rise in cases from last year. But the emotional wear-and-tear of public death on the community seems to have risen disproportionately.

Ginn will only call it "a tough year." A religious man, he believes now -- as he always has -- there is little he can ever do to help the dead. They will have had to prepare for that themselves. But, he says, he can help the living.

The crash of Comair 5191 was not different in that regard. The sheer number of those left behind who needed to be cared for was the only thing that separates, for Ginn, that tragedy from the one suffered by Stephanie Hufnagel, crushed to death this year by falling concrete, or from the catastrophe of two young women who drowned when swept into a storm drain or from the shock of the woman who stepped in front of a tractor-trailer as it flew down Interstate 75.

Each individual death required inordinate attention to the kind of details most of us would rather not know.

Those details don't linger with Ginn.

Maybe, he says, "I'm just not that morbid."

Aug. 27

The lawsuits stemming from the Comair crash are about affixing blame and assessing loss. Ginn is not responsible for the first, but he bears the burden of the latter. He must, from now until they're done, explain how people died that day and what they might have lived through before their deaths.

All 49 autopsies are done. Some of those onboard died of blunt force trauma, he says, and some had smoke in their lungs.

So they burned to death?

Yes, he says, they burned to death. It is still unknown whether any were conscious after the plane slammed into the ground.

The individuals were found from the front of the plane to the back as they died in their seats, though that is not certain given that upholstery melted, seat belts, too. There is no sign, says Ginn, that there was anyone actively trying to get out of the airplane. There was no bunching up of humanity at emergency doors. It looks as if they died where they sat. Except, he says, for the two individuals who were thrown clear of the plane and died of their injuries free of the aircraft.

Inside the plane, says Ginn, there was a lot of churned earth, torn-up sod and refuse from trees and parts of tree trunks. Once the fire had been extinguished, there was little left of the fuselage itself.

From the beginning, he says, he has tried to tell the community of Lexington what they needed to know. He says the National Transportation Safety Board worked well with him --- as did the FBI, the state police, the airport police, the city police, the fire department -- but ultimately it was his death scene.

"I knew what (the NTSB) wanted. I made it apparent to them what I was going to do. I told the families from the first day, if you ask me a question and I know the answer I will tell you to the best of my ability."

He says he tries not to use language that is hurtful. He never calls the people on board "bodies." "They are individuals who didn't stop being individuals when they died."

More than once, he called them "souls."

Matthew Snoddy, son of passenger Timothy Snoddy, said Ginn has been "open and honest with the families." He said that most of the families of the crash victims understood how confusing the initial reports of cause of death were and that the families appreciated Ginn's kind manner, his straightforward posture and his tough position.

In each case, once Ginn found out the circumstances of death, he has notified loved ones. The process of determining where each individual finally came to rest was hastened by the county's use of high-end mapping technology. The process of removing each individual from the place where they came to rest was more personal. Ginn had received calls from the coroners of surrounding, even far-flung, Kentucky counties. He told them to please come, "that there was work to do."

There is little, if anything, that can be done to prepare for the scene of a mass disaster. Ginn, in his three decades of handling the dead as, first, a mortician, then later in the coroner's office, had not been faced with anything like it. It was a deficiency he recognized in August 2005 when he decided to use his vacation time assisting in body retrieval on the Gulf Coast, post-Katrina.

So he was as ready as he knew how to be.

As the 49 bodies were being moved from the pasture to medical examiner vans and driven to Frankfort for identification and autopsy, Ginn asked for prayers.

"There were so many people out there. It was a little chaotic. I just wanted that presence out there."

He wanted reverence. This time, a gift from the living to one another, and the only real thing he could offer the dead.

May 16

Gary Ginn's days are not like yours. He is always one step behind death.

And when he must face the living, it is often on the very worst day of their lives. He feels their wrath as well as their sorrow.

Gary Ginn's most revealing day this year came on May 16 when a piece of concrete from a downtown parking garage fell on a woman who was going to work early so she might bank a few hours of extra maternity leave before the birth of her second child.

Stephanie Hufnagel and the 8-month-old fetus she was carrying both died instantly.

Hufnagel's body and the body of her child were still on the scene in the Chase Bank plaza when Brian, Stephanie's husband, arrived.

Brian was charging across police lines and toward where police and firefighters stood helpless guard over the calamity.

Ginn intercepted him.

Brian Hufnagel looked ready to punch Ginn, and Ginn says he was ready to take it.

"I remember when my wife was pregnant," says the coroner as if that explains everything.

Instead of violence, Ginn was able to move Brian toward a safe place inside the bank. Then Ginn took personal charge of the bodies, washing the baby, making ink imprints of the baby's feet and removing Stephanie's rings. That late Tuesday night of the accident, Ginn delivered these small tokens to Brian.

It bothers Ginn that Stephanie was just walking to work and, he notes, a few seconds one way or another and she is "laughing with her baby right now."

Or that, in March, a Nicholasville man was working at a Lexington garbage transfer station when the bucket of a small loader he was operating fell on his head, killing him instantly. Justin Avery was "young and strong, working hard, real hard to get his life together," says Ginn. Then, his chances evaporate.

Or that Lindsey Harp and Lauren Fannin, two women who accidentally drowned after being sucked into a storm drain in September, "did everything right. They took a taxi home and then made a mistake."

Mistakes, like the ones that caused the plane crash, nag at Ginn.

Still, it is the suicides he must pronounce that stay with him the longest. It is the utter despair that surrounds them and those who survive them that he recalls.

"Their pain is over for them, but what about the hurt everybody else who loved them gets to deal with," he says. "It's selfish."

He is thinking now of a teen-ager found hanged in a closet or the woman who walked in front of a tractor-trailer speeding down Interstate 75.

The latter incident occurred just two days after the death of Hufnagel and her baby.

Ginn had cried publicly that day during an impromptu press conference near the bank parking lot. Not big wailing tears, but the kind that come unbidden and without fanfare.

"I can grieve. I don't mind letting myself be emotional."

But, he added after a moment's thought, "When I stop feeling, I oughta quit this job."

Living by a golden rule

This is the year Gary Ginn lost a little anonymity. These days, he's invariably approached at Wal-Mart, told by some guy that "I know you from somewhere."

It's the year churches -- like his own and Southland Christian and others -- prayed for him, by name, on that sad Sunday in August because he was the only one they knew for sure would be there.

It's the year he leaned more heavily than usual on his Sunday School class at Broadway Christian and on his teacher, Marie Eades. Marie is 80, and the class of 30-plus is diverse, racially and life-stage-wise. They call themselves "The Encouragers."

The most Eades will say is Ginn sometimes needs somebody to listen to him. "But so do we all," she says.

She says sometimes he will ask for the group to pray for others whom he has just met.

"I try to take care of family members," he explains, "as I would want them to take care of me or my family."

This is the year Ginn tried to live again, he says, how Jesus meant us all to live.

On the Sunday following the crash, Gary Ginn penciled in a quick visit to church before he attended the other hundred things on his list.

Upon seeing him, everyone there stood.

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