A District woman believed to be dead was placed in a body bag by a team from the D.C. medical examiner's office, taken to the morgue and put in a refrigerated box until an investigator -- who was called to officially declare her dead -- found a pulse.
Deborah Wilson, 49, was found Friday morning in her bedroom at the Museum Square apartments, 401 K St. NW, apparently suffering from cardiac arrest. But what happened between the 911 call and four hours later when Wilson was finally pronounced dead remains in dispute, according to interviews and internal District records.
It is clear, however, that the normal procedures for determining whether a person is alive or dead and should be taken to the hospital or the morgue were not followed. That leaves open the question of precisely when Wilson died and whether she was alive after she was placed in a morgue cooler.
The initial call for help came into the D.C. fire department at 10:59 a.m. from the security office in Wilson's building, according to fire officials. Maintenance men doing fuse box work apparently entered Wilson's sixth-floor apartment and found the woman kneeling beside her bed, according to the woman's family.
Wilson, who was disabled and unemployed, lived alone in her apartment in the large, multistory building. Her family said she kept in daily contact with her sisters, who were very protective of her.
The workers called for help and notified Wilson's sister-in-law, who works in a dry cleaner's in the building, relatives said.
Paramedics arrived and "obviously thought the person was dead," said fire department spokesman Alan Etter. They called the medical examiner's office, who dispatched a team to retrieve the body, according to interviews.
The medical examiner's team arrived at 1:30 p.m., found police and two family members, and Wilson "on her knees like she was praying," according to a source on the scene.
When the body was removed from the bed, "she sighed and she moaned," the source said. The supervisor from the medical examiner's office heard the noises and said, "It's just aspirations. No big deal," the source said.
"So we bagged her up and came back with her," a source said. "It bothers me because the woman may have been alive when we put her in the damn plastic bag. I don't want to feel like I had a part in her death."
The decision to take Wilson to the morgue was made without the usual input of an investigator from the medical examiner's office -- because no investigator showed up.
"I don't remember why she wasn't at the scene," D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden said in an interview yesterday. "It is standard procedure for an investigator to go to the scene when a body is still there."
When Wilson's body arrived at the morgue, it was placed on a cart in "the box," a refrigerator that holds about four dozen bodies. At 2:40 p.m., the investigator -- a physician's assistant -- removed the body from the cooler to legally declare Wilson dead, according to a written report by investigator Mary Beth Petrasek, which was obtained by The Washington Post.
"While checking for a carotid pulse, this investigator thought there may be a slight pulse, though the decedent's upper extremities were stiff," Petrasek wrote. "Dr. [Constance] DiAngelo was called to verify and she too felt a faint pulse."
Wilson's body was removed from refrigeration and taken to the hallway. Petrasek checked for a pulse again and "a pulse was still felt," according to the report.
Cyril Wecht, the coroner in Allegheny County, Pa., and past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said a pulse is a sign that a person is alive.
"There is no pulsation after death," he said. "Definitely not."
The medical examiner's staff called D.C. paramedics, and Wilson was placed on a cardiac monitor but showed no heart activity, Arden said. She was formally pronounced dead at 3 p.m.
"The one thing I can say is I do not have a good explanation for why several of my staff said they felt a pulse," Arden said. "I do not believe there was a pulse. They thought they felt a pulse."
An autopsy was performed, but the cause of death is pending, Arden said.
The D.C. fire department is reviewing the matter to "figure out exactly what happened," Etter said. "If this is true, it's very troubling."
The 911 tapes were turned over yesterday to the mayor's office, fire officials said.
Clarissa Cuffee, Wilson's niece, said her family is upset that they were not told that several medical examiner staff members felt a pulse.
"It's a shock," Cuffee said. "No one has called us. We have no idea what's going on."
Wecht expressed surprise at the series of events. "They're supposed to take a body to a hospital and have them pronounced dead, and that wasn't done," he said.
He also said it is unlikely that several people mistakenly felt a pulse, adding that medical personnel should have initiated cardiopulmonary resuscitation once the first person noticed a pulse.
"You don't wait for confirmation," he said. "You assume there's life."
But Arden maintains that there was "strong evidence" that Wilson was dead when his staff called the paramedics to the morgue.
"There is no indication that she was alive at the time of the call," he said. "Her arms were flexed at the elbows and in rigor mortis. We all looked at each other and said, 'Okay, she is dead.' "
Staff writer David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.