Dr. Joseph B. Milzman and his wife Susan of Tilden Lane in Rockville began the painful tasks of the bereaved on Sunday morning.
They went to the Judean Memorial Gardens in Olney and selected a cemetery plot for their 21-year-old son Bruce, who Pennsylvania State Police said had died in a weekend car crash in southern Pennsylvania. Then they went to the Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapel on Rockville Pike and chose a casket. They provided information for the obituary and scheduled the funeral for 1 p.m. yesterday.
By early Sunday evening, the body had arrived at the funeral home. Susan Milzman insisted that she wanted to see her son's body, "to hold his hand just one more time," according to a family friend, though her husband, her rabbi and the funeral director told her it was too battered to look at.
The funeral director complied.
The body was not Bruce Milzman's.
The first thing Susan Milzman noticed was that the body had straight hair. Her son's hair is curly. Then Joseph Milzman, a dental surgeon, looked in the dead man's mouth. Those were not his son's teeth, he told confused funeral home officials.
The young Milzman, a graduate of Woodward High School in Rockville and a third-year biology student at Susquehanna University near Harrisburg, is alive, in serious condition at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa. He is expected to recover.
"It was a bizarre day," said Ronald Lenkin, a friend who accompanied the Milzmans to the funeral home. "When they were told their son was killed in an automobile accident they went through enormous pain and suffering. They prepared for their son's funeral. And he's alive."
The body in Rockville apparently is that of Gerald Sebia, a 21-year-old Hazleton, Pa.,resident. A Susquehanna student, Sebia was in the car with Milzman and a third student, Kevin Mitchell, 21, of Toms River, N.J., who was also killed.
The mixup began when Pennsylvania State Police misidentified the bodies after the crash based on identification cards they found in the car, according to James Schwartz, the Union County, Pa., coroner who signed a death certificate for Bruce Milzman.
The hospital registered them wrong, according to Schwartz, and Sebia's mother mistakenly identified Milzman, heavily bandaged and unable to talk, as her son. The mother and other Sebia relatives maintained "for hours," that Milzman was indeed Sebia, Schwartz said.
"There was a good bit of taping around Milzman's head. Her mistake was understandable," Lenkin said.
Once the funeral home operators learned of the mistake, Pennsylvania State Police were notified, and the police immediately escorted four of Milzman's fellow students to the hospital, where they correctly identified him. Milzman's parents, accompanied by Lenkin, hired a limousine, and drove to the hospital, arriving about 3 a.m. yesterday. They too, identified their son.
State police in Milton, Pa., said the three students had been fishing Saturday and were driving back to the university about 5:20 p.m. when their car went out of control in the village of Glen Iron. The car crossed and recrossed the road, then plunged down a 10-foot embankment and struck a tree.
Police said they have not yet determined who was driving at the time.
"It's a miracle that one child is living," said one relative, who asked not to be identified. She said she is angry that the bodies were confused, and that the family was put through such agony. "I've never heard of such a thing," she added.
Lenkin said the mother who mistook Milzman for her son had realized her error by the time the Milzmans arrived at Geisinger Medical Center, and had already left.
He said Milzman is "not out of the woods yet. It's a time when people who like to pray, pray."