As Orlando, Florida’s, chief medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Stephany is used to gruesome scenes. But nothing in his 10-year career prepared him for what he saw inside the Pulse nightclub on Sunday morning after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
“It’s almost like time stopped,” Stephany told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on Wednesday in his first media interview since the incident. “TVs were playing in the background; strobe lights were blinking; drinks had just been poured, food half-eaten, checks about to be paid. It was truly like time stood still.”
Stephany got the first call about 4 a.m. There were multiple casualties, about 11 or 12 bodies. It sounded like a lot of cases for one shooting, but he knew his overnight staff could handle it. But then texts kept coming. First 20 bodies, then 30. He headed to the nightclub.
“For me personally to be there on site, so I can help my staff, it’s important,” Stephany said. “Pictures don’t do justice. It wasn’t until I got to the scene and learned the body count was still growing and saw the sheer numbers of law enforcement and officials that I knew the scope of what we were dealing with.”
Stephany and his staff are not first responders. They’re normally allowed on site a few hours after the police, once the location is deemed safe.
“Our role is recovery, but before we retrieve the bodies, we have to document,” Stephany explained. “We have to document where the bodies are, their positions, what rooms they are in, anything we can do to help us determine cause and manner of death.”
Just as important to Stephany is gathering information that can help identify the bodies quickly. Not for the police, but for the families.
“For every victim, there are five to six family members who will start calling immediately,” he said. “They start calling anyone they can, and we want to set up one number and get all the information we can and give it to them.”
To do that, Stephany and his team look for watches, jewelry, tattoos, hair color, eye color and of course personal identification such as driver’s licenses. On many of the victims, that was easily available. By midnight Sunday, all but one of the victims had been identified and ferried to the main morgue. But not the shooter, Omar Mateen. Out of respect to the families and the victims, his body was treated differently.
“The shooter was transported by himself,” Stephany explained. “I autopsied him personally, away from the victims. We felt it was best ethically, morally, for the families to separate the bodies, so they won’t have the picture in their minds of the shooter next to their loved one. It just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.”
Then, Stephany set a goal for his staff: complete the autopsies on all the victims and the shooter by Tuesday night.
“We believe it’s a public mission to reunite those victims with their families,” he said. “By 4:30 Tuesday afternoon, everyone had full autopsies, interior, exterior, and many people had been released and were back with their families. To provide that solace to those loved ones.”
Stephany is also making himself available to the families who want to find out more about how their loved ones died. The most common question he knows he will receive: Did my loved one suffer?
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see any evidence of struggle or any signs of trampling,” he said, weariness in his voice, “It was just like everyone stopped and laid down where they were, if that’s any consolation to the families.”
As for the shooter, Stephany says, his body is still in the morgue, unclaimed.