PHILADELPHIA -- In a one-story factory on a quiet side street in the blue-collar Port Richmond neighborhood here, workers who make bedsheets for babies are busy filling a new rush order: 16,099 body bags for soldiers who may die in Operation Desert Shield.
"I hope nobody has to use these," said Edward Lustick, an Aldan Rubber Co. employee, as he inspected the olive-color, rubber-coated material that will be sewn into the government's standard seven-foot, 10-inch bags that store human remains.
On Dec. 11, the Department of Defense awarded a contract to three body bag makers. They immediately called Aldan, one of the few sources in the country for the chloroprene-coated fabric used for the waterproof bags, the contractors said.
"We can confirm that we have ordered human remains pouches," said Lt. Col. Stuart Wagner, a Pentagon spokesman. "But we can't say how many or where they are going."
Pentagon sources, however, said the rush order for the 16,099 body bags was placed because they may be needed in Operation Desert Shield.
"No, it would not be wrong to say that these body bags are going to Desert Shield," said one Defense Department official. "We do always keep some on hand, but this is not regular inventory."
Three of the companies said they were told the bags were for Operation Desert Shield. One company official said that when he inquired about the unusual number, a Defense Department supply officer said the order was based on a computer model of how many deaths might result if a shooting war breaks out in the Persian Gulf.
"I asked why it was such a crazy number. Why not 16,000 or 17,000?" said Hugh Blaha, vice president of C.R. Daniels, an Ellicott City, Md., firm assembling 8,200 of the body bags in its Tennessee factory. The Department of Defense official "said that it was based on computations that were made and that this was the number that they needed," Blaha said.
The Pentagon has refused to estimate publicly how many American lives might be lost in a war with Iraq. Defense officials will not acknowledge any preparations for war casualties, keeping classified the number of body bags, hospital beds and grave registration units in the Persian Gulf region.
The term "body bag," has even been stricken from the official vocabulary at the Pentagon, where military spokesmen, when pressed, referred to them as "human remains pouches."
Norbert Efros, an owner of Lite Industries Inc., of Paterson, N.J., said his company could make only 4,000 of the body bags on the "very tight delivery schedule" called for in the Desert Shield contract. "They made it very clear that they needed these right away," Efros said.
Blaha said his Ellicott City company, which also makes Christian Dior handbags, has set aside about 40 sewing machine operators to work full time on the body bags. The company expects to get its first shipment of material from Aldan by Jan. 21.
The Pentagon body bags, sturdier than those used by commercial mortuaries, cost about $100 each.
The stipulations of the contract awarded Dec. 11 call for delivery of some bags as soon as possible, with all 16,099 delivered by March 1, according to the contractors.
To fill the largest order for the government-specification body bag material it has ever received, Aldan is keeping its two giant ovens operating 24 hours a day. The heat seals the rubber coating on the green fabric.
"We're running three shifts around the clock. We can't do more than that," said Barry Fleischer, Aldan's vice president for marketing. "We're working overtime and Saturdays."
Most of Aldan's business is in commercial products, including material for Gerber waterproof bedsheets for babies.
"I choose not to think about what it's for because it's not very pleasant," Fleischer said as he watched hundreds of yards of the body bag material roll on steel rods into the ovens.
"I'm seeing quite a bit of this these days," said Winston Parker, the factory's head oven operator as he checked the rubber-coated material as it was heated to 280 degrees. "I hope nothing is going to happen that means we have to use these. It's not going to prove anything if we go to war."