ANDERSON — A temporary cooler secured by Ascension St. Vincent Anderson to store bodies for the coroner’s use was abruptly removed this week.

The cooler was taken from the hospital Wednesday, said Madison County Coroner Dr. Troy Abbott.

“There was a communication error when ordering the cooler, and that is being handled by the coroner’s office,” said Danielle Eagleson, a public relations spokeswoman for Ascension St. Vincent. “No bodies were stored in the unit by Ascension St. Vincent, to our knowledge.”

Emails from hospital security, however, reveal security staff removed three bodies from the temporary cooler before it was removed.

Abbott said the hospital ordered the temporary cooler through a second party and informed the person what the cooler was being used for, but the second party did not tell the company that supplied the cooler that it would be used to store bodies.

“The trailer that was ordered was appropriate for the intended use, however the owner of the trailer decided to withdraw involvement,” Eagleson said in an emailed statement.

Madison County commissioners discussed the cooler rental during their board meeting Tuesday and said the cooler was rented from Moore Advance Services Group out of Indianapolis. The company had no comment when contacted about the cooler rental.

Abbott said the coroner’s office had custody of nine bodies Tuesday and stored most of the decedents in the temporary cooler to free up space in the hospitals’ morgues.

“We did not want dead bodies piling up in our hospitals,” said Abbott.

Michele Hockwalt, a public relations spokeswoman from Community Hospital Anderson, said all three morgue spaces at that hospital were available Tuesday, and two spaces were available Wednesday.

While technically true, said Chief Deputy Coroner Katherine Callahan, that’s because bodies from the hospitals were taken to the temporary cooler. “We were trying to be very proactive and leave the actual (morgue spaces) within the hospitals as (unused) as possible and use the (temporary) cooler.

“We had two (bodies) in the (morgue) at St. Vincent’s and two on the tables (at room temperature) at St. Vincent’s,” she said. “We had five in the temporary cooler.”

Callahan said four autopsies were performed at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday; over a nine-hour period, the coroner’s office was able to release custody of the bodies of seven of the decedents.

After the temporary cooler was removed, Abbott said there was a meeting with officials from St. Vincent, and they informed him that someone complained about the temporary cooler at the hospital being morbid. He said the hospital was no longer willing to provide the temporary cooler at its facility

Abbott said the coroner’s office is in a constant state of flux without a county morgue, and transportation issues can compound the problem.

“That’s all the more reason why we should have a morgue so it doesn’t affect other businesses,” said Abbott.

Eagleson said St. Vincent Anderson typically does not publicly report deaths, but since August the hospital has had six COVID-19 deaths.

“It’s not an overwhelming increase,” she said. “In June we had zero, in July we had zero, so it’s not an overwhelming increase, it’s over the last five weeks we have had six.”

She said the hospital does not require additional temporary cooler capacity now.

“The issue with the cooler, the morgue and all that stuff — really this issue is directly related to the fact that the Madison County coroner does not have a morgue,” she said.

Abbott said arrangements have been made for a diesel-powered cooler from the state to be used in Madison County beginning Friday.

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An ink slinging wordsmith with The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana. Writing about news that is changing people's lives. Have a news tip? Send it to traci.miller@heraldbulletin.com or call me at 765-640-4805.