INDIANAPOLIS — Thursday night marks one week since the mass shooting at an Indianapolis FedEx Ground facility claimed the lives of eight victims and injured several others.
As the community continues to process what happened, mourn the loss of their neighbors, and begin working towards healing, the job for the Marion County Coroner’s Office, tasked with a heavy burden in the shooting aftermath, is not yet over.
The coroner’s office began its investigation in the hours after a gunman shot and killed workers at the facility, before taking his own life.
Alfarena McGinty, chief deputy coroner for the Marion County Coroner’s Office, said this has had a significant impact on staff.
“This particular incident was slightly different. It impacted our staff slightly different,” she said, “we are wanting to address that.”
One of the particularly difficult parts of this process, McGinty said, was delivering the news to families whose loved ones were killed Thursday night.
“It was probably the most challenging thing that one of my senior staff had to do. My senior staff expressed that it was very difficult to make notification, one after another,” she said.
“It was heartbreaking.”
“We see death on a daily basis, but we can never really prepare for an incident like what we saw last Friday,” said deputy coroner, Tristan Eicholz.
Eicholz said, “I was hopeful that I would never see it, but I was prepared. Part of our training that we go through tries to help us mentally prepare for something like that.”
Even with the training, responding to an incident of this nature weighed heavy.
“I cannot thank our chief deputy and our coroner enough for the support they have provided to us,” said Eicholz. “Unfortunately, with an incident like what occurred I think a little bit more support was definitely needed from a lot of our staff and to the families.”
“It is actually more difficult than what I thought it would be on the staff and understanding that it doesn’t end with that particular day,” said McGinty.
On top of the mass shooting, in the last seven days, the Marion County Coroner’s Office has conducted additional 50-plus death investigations, including multiple homicides, said McGinty.
“We also have to take care of our staff because death investigations don’t stop,” said McGinty.
She said their primary goal as staff remains to address what they need to do to help families, and at the same time, taking a look at how they can support their own staff to keep them doing the work they do every day.
“Sometimes people don’t understand that coroners, deputy coroners, medical examiners, pathologists are people too with feelings, we’re just special in that this is the job we know how to do that’s close to our heart, that we want to do,” she said. “Our deputy coroners and staff become emotional as it relates to such tragic events.”
Right now, McGinty said they are working to make sure all staff has access to support services. They have brought in mental health experts, K9 comfort dogs, and are looking at ways to move forward by continuing these practices.
She said one of the most simple steps they are taking is giving staff the opportunities to express their feelings and be able to share the impacts recent incidents have had or take time off, if needed, to process things.
The department will continue to hold emotional debriefings and work through this, all while continuing its job of serving the community and helping other families, which cannot be put on hold.
“We’ve put together some things that will help our staff continue to move forward, continue to go on, continue to serve our families we are required to serve,” said McGinty.
Eicholz said they look at each case from the human aspect of it, but when they respond to a scene, they have to have a certain mentality. “You have to focus as an investigator first and foremost,” he said.
“The challenging part as deputy coroner is when we’ve left the scene, we’ve gone back home, we’re unwinding and how we deal with that is really what defines us as an investigator,” said Eicholz.
McGinty said in the immediate aftermath of the FedEx shooting, the former coroner who handled the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in modern-day U.S. history, called her to offer his support and advice for her staff as they work through this.
Although memorial services and visitations are being set for many of the victims in the mass shooting, the job of the coroner’s office continues as they begin helping to finalize what families need to handle their loved ones’ affairs.
“We do have a significant role in the finalization for the families,” she said. “With this particular incident, just like any other, what we have to do is provide some closure to the families.”
The coroner’s office will take the steps to help each family through the process, by providing a cause and manner of death so they can begin to take care of what is needed financially, personally, and beyond.
“We also will issue a death certificate in the coming weeks that will explain more in-depth the injuries that were found, but that’s a personal thing, so when the family is ready for that, then we will share that information with them,” explained McGinty.
“Helping them to understand the process was something that we were able to do with the help of the Red Cross, who coordinated a family meeting, where we could talk to families about what the next steps were and so that they understood we are here to assist them moving forward so that they can get through that grieving process with answers and information.”
She said their office has observed an increase in death investigations over the past few years, which includes multiple deaths at various fatality scenes.
Right now, data provided by the Marion County Coroner’s office shows 14 multiple fatality scenes in the first four months of 2021. In all of 2020, there was a total of 33 scenes with multiple fatalities.
She said this is a trend they are seeing on what seems to be a weekly basis.
“I have a really good, tough staff, but nonetheless, it’s difficult when you’re going from one thing to another, coming out of COVID with what we thought would be a calm year going into 2021,” she said.
McGinty said although their office is dealing with an extraordinary caseload with a small staff, they are committed to getting answers for families and continuing to move forward.
“Our responsibilities are not only to find the cause and manner but also take care of the families that it affects,” said Eicholz. “We respond to all sorts of manners of death — homicides, suicides, accidents, any kind of unnatural death the coroner will respond to that.”