James Robinson, New York City, Reverend Morton discussed on WSJ What's News
Images and stories from the pandemic that will be seared into many people's memories forever. One of them was the discovery in April of rental trucks, holding dozens of dead bodies out a funeral home in New York City. The people found that day were victims not just of the coronavirus, but of a system overwhelmed one of them was seventy two year old nathaniel hallman. He lived in the Bronx with his wife Mitzi. They were married for forty two years. He repaired whirlpool appliances and in retirement he and his wife or a Deacon and deaconess at the Church of the Meek Baptist. Harlem they visited. visited the sick and shut ins in early April at the height of the pandemic and New York City home in was at a Rehab Center in the Bronx, where he was diagnosed with nineteen, the sent him to the hospital next door where a few weeks later he succumbed to the disease, but that's not where the story ends. It's where it begins our reporter Michael Phillips. He died on April Seventeenth, at Saint Louis Hospital and his goddaughter hope who is a very astute person. decided she would take responsibility for making sure that he was cremated and taking care of and and so his wife is widow. mitzi wouldn't have to do it. And so hope was under the impression that she had only seven days to get his body in the hands of funeral director, or the hospital would give the body to the city, and the city would bury him in a mass grave on Hart Island, which is a the Potter's field for New York City. One hundred and fifty years that the people have been left behind have been buried on on heard island. And, so she thought okay I've got a week to find somebody to take care of the body, and she started calling funeral homes, and they were all full. This was the height of the epidemic of hundreds and of New Yorkers were dying at a day on the day that that Daniel died three hundred eighty four New Yorkers died. And so the funeral homes would just overloaded. She called something like twenty funeral homes, and they all said we can't take him. Her Middle Son was even doing an internship at a Newark New Jersey funeral home and they were full to take Nathanielsz bodies. So she grew more and more panicky over the course of the week, and she contacted a family friend Reverend up in Connecticut, Marshall, Morton and Reverend Morton being in the you know the business of of being a clergyman new number of funeral home directors called up an old contact that he had named James Robinson. Mr Robinson worked out of a funeral home in Neptune City New Jersey as well as one in Brooklyn. And so he said, according to Reverend Morton I'll take care of this for you. I've got it and please. Please take the body down to my funeral home in Neptune. So the Reverend and hope son managed to find a funeral director, who would could drive the body out of New York to Neptune New Jersey Neptune city. And deliver it just before the what hope thought was the deadline at the hospital. They get the body out of there, so they took the bodies of Neptune city Mr Robinson the funeral director was not there. A person who was there said I'm sorry. I can't accept this body. They called up. Mr Robinson the funeral director. And this is where there's a lot of disagreement about what took place, but from the point of view of the family and Reverend Morton. What happened was Robinson said. I didn't mean for you to take it to. New Jersey Take my place in Brooklyn, this is something that that Mr Robinson disputes. He says he never said such a thing. The driver took the body up to Brooklyn to a funeral home called likely funeral services on UTICA avenue in Brooklyn. He dropped the body off there with the people who were there. They put it in. A refrigerated truck was parked on the street. And the family assumed everything was OK at that point. The body was supposed to be cremated on the twenty ninth so a few days later. And when hope called the the crematory to ask whether or not or godfather had been had been cremated, she got an answering. Machine were closed for maintenance the next day. She got answering machine message, but Never received confirmation he had been cremated. During this time news broke about all these bodies in Brooklyn in U. Haul trucks, and that was the same address where they had dropped off Mr Hallman. So hope began to panic and put things together. She called up the Reverend. The Reverend put things together. They all started to worry and at that point they tried to get Mr Robinson to explain where the body was. They tried to get a funeral home to explain where the body was tried to get the city. Medical Examiner explain where the body was, and they just couldn't find. It took until the fifth of May until. Finally learned that her godfather's bodied Nathaniel Hamad's body had actually been in the back of an unrefrigerated u-haul truck left on the street in Brooklyn, just a horrible horrible discovery, and it wasn't the end for Nathaniel. Family, who then spent several weeks trying to get his body and arranged for his final resting. What happened after this? There was another misstep when the bodies were discovered at the funeral home. In the U.. Haul trucks hope called the city medical examiner's office. They had come over. You know when the when the police got there and the after nine one one call reporting bodies and trucks on the street. You know hope called everybody. She could find the governor's offices. The attorneys general of the State of New Jersey and New York. You know. Where's My Godfather? And when she called the medical examiner's office, they had already collected sixty one bodies from the trucks and from clerk. Lee's funeral home itself, including many that would simply on the floor in various states of undress, and on the floor of the Chapel at the funeral homes just loaded with bodies. And so she when she called the medical examiner's office, they went through the list of all the bodies. They retrieved from the funeral home from the trucks. And Nathaniel Holman's name was not on the list, so for days and days she couldn't find out where he was. She even went over with Reverend Morton to the funeral home. Mr Clearly was not there at the time. Mr Robinson was not there at the time and she said. My father was here. Where is he and couldn't couldn't get an answer? And, what happened was and the fifth of May. That medical examiner's office discovered that the name on his paperwork had been reversed as hallman nathaniel so when they had looked up the bodies they had. When hope it call then they looked in their record, says he will what bodies we have. Do we have in home? It came up as a negative. The only had a home in faneuil. And by the fifth of May, they figured this out, and now remember he died on the seventeenth of April, so we're no weeks into this, and only then does hope discover that. In fact, her godfather had been in one of trucks and was now in the care of Medical Examiner's office. At that point, the the medical examiner said look. We have him safe. He's in. You know in cooled unit, so he's he won't decay. To be blunt about it. You can leave them here until you find a funeral director. WHO's able to cremate him? which is what the family wanted to do, so they held onto him and it wasn't until five weeks after his death. I think thirty nine days exactly after his death that they were able to get him cremated, and now his ashes are in an urn that his his widow Mitzi keeps at her bedside Michael. What else did you hear from city officials in response to this as well as from the quickly funeral home. The state authorities suspended Mr Claes. Licensed to act as a funeral director, and then held a series of hearings online hearings to decide whether to permanently revoked his license for you know poor practices, the ruling has not yet come out. They've had three hearings and the lawyers have submitted final closing statements, but the administrative law judge has not yet ruled on whether to revoke his license in listening to the at least one of those hearings, and in talking to Mr.. Claes attorney, he's basically the the argument is they were holding the bodies in the U. Haul trucks as they were moving them from the refrigerated truck which was. Recognized waited two whole bodies into the funeral home to be packaged up four cremation. And so he said we would keep them in the in the U. Haul trucks for a while and then move them. It was hard I think for the prosecuting attorney. I guess he'd be called the prosecuting attorney. Understand that because the argument is why not just move them from the refrigerated truck all the way into funeral home instead of stopping. This is just a matter of a few yards, so stopping and putting them in a truck. Mr Quickly. That's Mr Clarke's defense as well as his lawyer said to me. Look the whole city was inundated with bodies. Just wasn't enough. Space to handle the mall and so things happen. And he said that he thought it was unfair that his client Mr clinically was being singled out when so many other funeral homes were also overcrowded in his in his argument. So, that that is his defense Mister Robinson's defense. He has not been charged with any anything by the state. He has not been his has not been suspended, but in talking to him, his argument is. I never had that body. I never signed any paperwork saying that that body was under my control so everyone who says that I did agree to take control of Mr. Hammond's body is line. That is his argument. There are text messages back and forth in which he says that he would take care of the body, but he also said and give me the paperwork, so there's now a lawsuit underway Msci Hallman and hope dukes. Who is the the Goddaughter of Daniel? Hallman have filed suit against the he quickly home as well as Mr. Robinson And are seeking damages for what they describe of course as mistreatment of Nathaniel remains. Michael as you say, and as you've heard from many of the people in this story, Nathanielsz body was one of dozens discovered in rental trucks during the height of the pandemic. What did reporting out the story and what happened in this one case? Tell you about what happened here in New York at the height of this. So, what are your takeaways from this tragic story? This won't come as a surprise to anybody but. When the pandemic really hits and went really hit New York. Hardest I. At least in the United States of course. It just overwhelmed the system. The city and the people who who manage these things would just not ready for overwhelming the doctor. Was Internal Internist <hes> resident at Saint Barnabas Hospital. Who took? Mitzi up to see Nathaniel before he died is she would cry constantly into her. into a mask and goggles because there's just so much misery. All around her. And the same situation occurred with with the body's. Just the city. Wasn't prepared for the awfulness that that's that hit it. I can't judge whether they should have been more prepared. Or there was some mistake making made made at some point. That's not really within my capacity to judge. But, certainly, it was overwhelmed. And that meant that there are a lot of a lot of collateral damage and. Michi and hope, and of course <hes> Nathaniel himself were part of that collateral damage, and now I think. Between lawsuits and historians and journalists looking back at what happened. We'll start to peel that apart and figure out. Who did what who could have done things that were you know could have done things better and who who? Who did the best they could?