Seeing More Than Case No. 09-01458
Grieving Family Navigates Bureaucratic Challenges to ID Victim, Tie Up Her Affairs

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009

YaVonne and Erwin DuBose stepped outside the D.C. medical examiner's office yesterday to take in the fresh heat. They needed a reprieve. They had just seen a photograph of their 29-year-old daughter, Veronica DuBose, one of nine people killed in this week's Metro train crash, her face yellowed, bruised and swollen.

Asked to identify her body, they pinpointed the mole on her lip and her finely arched eyebrows. Their daughter's life was now boiled down to a bureaucratic moniker -- Case No. 09-01458 -- on a Proof of Death certificate.

"Unbelievable to see that," said Erwin, 56, a procurement specialist at the National Institutes of Health, standing on the morgue's steps. "It didn't even look like her. I asked if she got burned, but they didn't know. I can't remember. Was there a fire on the train?"

YaVonne, a city psychiatric social worker, embraced her time at the morgue: a single moment in a confusing grieving process and in her stepdaughter's ambitious life to become a highly trained nurse. "All of this is happening. You take one step. Another. This is like a story. It all goes in," YaVonne, 52, said. "We only go to the medical examiner's office once -- we have to capitalize. Nothing stands alone. We're also going to have a funeral, a celebration of her life."

Two days after the deadliest crash in Metro's 33-year history, relatives of those killed were quietly wending their way through a puzzling and strangely mundane game of logistics. In the hours after learning that their daughter was one of the dead, DuBose family members confronted another painful truth: that no one was going to escort them through all the government hurdles and mind-numbing matters.

Such as: How late is the morgue open? Should Veronica's belongings be picked up at their police station before or after the trip to the morgue? Can her apartment be cleaned out before July so nobody has to pay next month's rent and her deposit can be returned?

The journey began Tuesday night at YaVonne and Erwin's home on Farragut Place NW. After detectives stopped by to deliver the devastating news, the couple began making plans to visit the D.C. medical examiner's office and their police station to collect Veronica's belongings.

But they couldn't find their son, Erwin II, 15, a high school sophomore, who was out in the neighborhood, presumably with friends. So the couple waited on their porch, decorated with white plastic chairs and wooden wind chimes, and talked with neighbors.

They reminisced about Veronica shopping for toys for her children, Raja, 8, and 15-month-old Ava, on Sunday and her grilling in the back yard for Father's Day. In the house, where several pieces of artwork inscribed with proverbs hang on the wall, was Veronica's Hallmark card, signed with her nickname: "When I find a husband I hope he's like you. You are MY HERO and I LOVE YOU! With Love, Ronnie."

After doing an interview with WRC (Channel 4) on the front stoop, Sabrina Christmas, an aunt, arrived. "You're not going to the morgue tonight, are you?" she asked.

"Yeah," Erwin said, asking her to stay at the home while they would be gone.

But YaVonne called the morgue and learned that it was closed. "What time is it going to be open?" she asked on her cellphone. "At 8? I'm going to be there like it's my job. She doesn't need to be there any longer than she has to."

She called the police station to see whether they could obtain her belongings that night. But, it, too, was closed.

So, they did the only thing they could without someone telling them no. They went to the Takoma Metro station, found Veronica's car and left a note on it.

The next morning, Erwin and YaVonne expanded the agenda: first the police station, then Veronica's apartment on Fourth Street NW to get her landlord's phone number, then the morgue.

As they got ready to go, Erwin grappled with the tumult that afflicted his sleep. "I was just thinking about what she was going through in that train," he said. "I know it was frightening. She was crying. Oh, man."

Then, he and YaVonne, and their children, Erwin II and Lindsey, 19, a college student, got in the family's Ford and headed out. They pulled up to the 4th Police District headquarters on Georgia Avenue.

"We're here to pick up some belongings," YaVonne told the person at the front counter.

"What kind of belongings?" the official asked.

"For Veronica DuBose," YaVonne said. "She was on the Metro train."

"You have to bring the death certificate first," the official told her. "And, I'm sorry for your loss."

The couple walked out empty-handed. "That's what I don't have time for!" YaVonne yelled.

They sped toward Veronica's basement apartment to find the landlord's daughter, who lives upstairs. YaVonne tapped on the door, and after a few minutes, Lisa Smith opened it.

"Hi. Veronica died in the Metro," she told Smith. YaVonne explained that she wanted Veronica's things moved out before having to pay next month's rent.

"I know. I saw last night," Smith said, scribbling down her father's phone number. "Call my dad."

YaVonne got back in the car, proud of making some headway, and then the DuBoses drove to the morgue.

As they wheeled into an expanse of parking lots, they had a hard time finding the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Straight up? No, go to the right! I know where it is! No, that's the court supervision building!

They parked on a gravelly lot, littered with crushed soda cups, plastic forks and flattened cases of mints.

"Here we go," Erwin said, climbing the stairs to the morgue, "Bldg. 27" written on the front door. "Big one."

Outside, the younger Erwin, who wasn't allowed in the building because he is a minor, sat on a railing and played rap songs from his cellphone out loud. It's a dirty dirty world that we live in, rapper Lil Boosie sang from the phone. The teen got bored and pressed his face to the doors.

After about an hour, YaVonne and Erwin emerged and recounted their visit. An official had appeared with a clipboard and the photograph of Veronica, Erwin said.

The family headed back to the car, carrying the photo in a manila envelope. YaVonne looked troubled. "She had a money envelope that was still wet with blood. It was red," she said. "It hadn't even turned brown yet."

They stood by the family car and opened the envelope, and examined the photograph one more time.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company