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Morgue nightmare almost caused Preckwinkle’s knees to buckle

Bodies stacked top bodies Cook County medical examiner's office 2012.

Bodies stacked on top of bodies in the Cook County medical examiner's office in 2012.

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Updated: July 21, 2012 6:32AM

It was a house of horrors.

Body parts in plastic bags tossed on a cooler floor.

Corpse-carrying forklifts driven by untrained workers crashing into shelves holding the dead.

Autopsy instruments smeared with bodily fluids strewn haphazardly.

Dead bodies stacked unceremoniously in coolers.

Unrelenting stench.

But worst of all: A potential breeding ground for a communicable disease nightmare.

◆ Its location: the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, where all Cook County autopsies are conducted; the bodies of indigent vets are housed; and where the poor and slain stay longer than needed.

◆ The grisly conditions were detailed by Sneed sources and in a “damning” preliminary report by the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) which almost caused Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s knees to buckle.

“She was jarred ... really jarred,” said a top Preckwinkle source.

“Preckwinkle had already dispatched a team from her office to alleviate complaints of body stacking and mismanagement in February, which was able to reduce the body count load from 400 plus to 234,” said the Preckwinkle source.

“But the report about an airborne disease threat was shocking,” the source said.

As a result, Preckwinkle ordered on-site infectious disease screening, including chemical testing, to be offered to employees June 25.

Sneed has obtained a redacted copy of the DOL summary report given to Preckwinkle, who acted quickly to remove top leadership: chief Medical Examiner Dr. Nancy Jones, who is considered a top professional in her field, and the agency’s chief administrator, Kimberly Jackson, who insiders tell Sneed “was totally ill-equipped to handle such a job.”

A source familiar with the report claims Preckwinkle “laid the foundation” for Jones to retire, but “demanded Jackson’s resignation.”

Sneed is told Jackson, who was originally hired in June 2003 to deal with worker benefits in the Cook County Department of Risk Management, was clouted into the Medical Examiner’s executive officer job by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger­—AFTER he lost the Democratic primary to Preckwinkle.

Attempts to reach Jackson were unsuccessful.

“It’s clear that there was mismanagement and poor administration in this office, and it was time for a new direction,” said Kurt Summers, Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.

Preckwinkle, who is said to have described the summary DOL report as “damning” and was “furious” when given it ten days ago, will not receive the full report until the end of the month.

The report claims the violations are so serious, “there is a substantial probability that death or serious physical injury could result if not abated.”

In fact, no medical examiner employee injury logs were kept, according to the report — which did not include the in-between-the-lines blood and guts details provided to Preckwinkle by her staff — and subsequently given to Sneed by informed sources.

◆The fear: “If an employee was infected with HIV or a communicable disease due to a carelessly placed knife or instrument — or from a body dripping contaminated fluid, they could be walking around with a serious communicable disease,” said a source familiar with the report, which lists 21 violations.

Imagine that potential disaster!

Racks in the cooler holding stacked bodies may have a dramatic effect, but, according to the report, failure to ensure the safety of personnel was cited ­— including lack of eye goggles and eye wash stations — both necessary in case bodily fluids were accidentally released.

The report also cites failures to train employees to deal with exposure to bloodborne contamination or ensure employees were vaccinated against Hepatitis C.

The medical examiner’s office didn’t even “appropriately segregate laundry exposed to biohazards” and “there was no respiratory protection program,” the report stated.

The county morgue may be a house for the dead, but the shocker is the danger for the 97 employees who work there.

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