NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — CBS2 has learned hundreds of bodies of COVID patients are still being stored in a refrigerated morgue on the waterfront.

The large refrigerated trailers lined up on Brooklyn’s 39th Street Pier hide a heartbreak that fully came to light only this week.

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There are 750 bodies inside, in what some City Council members call appalling and secret long-term storage, amounting, they say, to shocking neglect and mismanagement.

The temporary morgues were set up more than a year ago at the height of the COVID pandemic.

Wednesday, the office of the medical examiner revealed at a City Council hearing that many of the bodies have been there for months.

“It was established specifically to give families that additional time during a very stressed period for the funeral industry, give them additional time to make arrangements,” said Dina Maniotis, executive deputy commissioner for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Watch Dave Carlin’s report — 

City Council committee members demanded to know the reason for the delays and why the bodies are not properly laid to rest in the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island, even in a temporary way, allowing them to be moved at a later time if needed.

“Now that they’ve passed are sitting like pieces of furniture in a storage facility, unclaimed luggage,” New York City Councilmember Mark Gjonaj told CBS2’s Dave Carlin.

Gjonaj says it angered him to learn the excuse boils down to bureaucracy and paperwork.

“I don’t need documents when I know that there’s someone seeking public burial. We know that they don’t have the financial wherewithal,” he said.

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For more than a century, unclaimed persons in New York City have been laid to rest on Hart Island in the Long Island Sound. Families can also choose to have a relative buried there for free.

Melinda Hunt runs the Hart Island Project, which assists families with burials.

“It’s a very difficult decision for families because Hart Island has been stigmatized for so long,” she told CBS2’s Ali Bauman.

Hunt says the medical examiner legally has to wait one week before burying an unclaimed body, but it’s been standard practice to wait longer and give relatives more time.

“I think the freezer trucks just make it more visible, but the medical examiner had been holding bodies for months and months before the pandemic. They just didn’t have quite as many previously,” she said.


Friday, a spokesman for the Chief Medical Examiner sent CBS2 the following statement, indicating some delays are allowing families to make difficult burial decisions: “With sensitivity and compassion, we continue to work with individual families on a case by case basis during their period of mourning.”

“We owe it to them. We owe it to one another … It’s the right thing, the humane thing to do to bury them in dignity and respect,” Gjonaj said.

The medical examiner’s office says it will continue to reduce the size of its long-term mortuary operation and will begin notifying families that they’re making the transfer to Hart Island.

Public trips to the currently closed Hart Island are set to start up again May 15 with visits capped at 10 people.

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CBS2’s Dave Carlin contributed to this report.

Ali Bauman