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POTOMAC RIVER ACCIDENT

Names of Victims Switched By Mistake; One Cremated

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By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006

They were best friends who were fishing together June 16 when both fell into the Potomac River, one holding on to the other, neither able to break free.

The next afternoon they were found floating near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Both were taken to Baltimore for autopsies, and later in the week, their bodies were sent to Jefferson Funeral Chapel in Fairfax County, where separate funerals were planned.

But in what friends said was a bizarre coda to the lives and deaths of the adventurous pair, John E. Walker ended up in the coffin of William M. Heislup. And Heislup had been mistakenly cremated.

"It was just awful," said Mike Ridenour, who was on his way to Heislup's viewing when he was told it had been canceled. "It was a tragedy all over again."

The mix-up occurred after the bodies of Walker, 48, who had lived in Arlington, and Heislup, 47, of Fairfax County, arrived at the medical examiner's office in Baltimore. Officials said yesterday that a worker misidentified the pair.

"A transcribing error of case numbers onto photographs taken at the scene resulted in wrong names being attributed to the deceased," the office said in a brief statement. "We are devastated that this mistake was made and we regret any additional pain the families are suffering at this time of loss."

The worker was given a 30-day suspension.

Jefferson Funeral Chapel released a statement yesterday saying the mix-up was not its fault, as the identification process for accidental deaths occurs before the mortuary is called. The cremation was done by the funeral home.

On Wednesday, before Heislup's funeral, Heislup's brother and sister went to Jefferson Funeral Chapel, Ridenour said. There, they opened the coffin they assumed held their brother's body, only to find that of his best friend.

"I was called and told the wake and the funeral had been canceled," Ridenour said. "I never heard of anything so bizarre. I had no idea what had happened. Lots of people showed up and were told to go home, that it wasn't going to happen."

A woman who answered the telephone at Heislup's home would not comment yesterday. Walker's family could not be located.

Walker, known as Johnny, and Heislup, who was called Billy, had been friends most of their lives, other friends said yesterday. Last Friday evening, with the sun at their backs, they set out with a third man on Heislup's bass boat, hoping to catch a few fish before night's end.


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