Ex-NUMEC worker's body exhumed after 40 years

By Mary Ann Thomas

Saturday, July 12, 2008

More than 40 years after she was laid to rest, the body of Pauline Sulava was exhumed Friday morning at St. Catherine Cemetery in order to determine whether radiation exposure led to her untimely death.

The hum of a gas-powered winch lifting the coffin was the only sound among the wooded hilltops surrounding the neatly kept Catholic graveyard.

Then the winch stopped and there was silence. Water gushed from the bottom of the dirt-tarnished, champagne-colored casket.

A small crowd gathered around Sulava's grave, including Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno, Joseph A. Mancuso, a funeral director and longtime forensic expert, and Tom Haley of Allegheny Township, a former engineer for the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo.

Someone uttered, "this doesn't look good."

Exhuming Sulava's remains for forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril H. Wecht to conduct an autopsy was a gamble.

After decades in the ground, it was impossible to predict the condition of her remains, according to Wecht and Mancuso

Although the forensic scientists could glean information from bones, they needed soft tissue to more easily document Sulava's ailments that caused or contributed to her untimely death in 1967 at the age of 44.

Sulava's daughter, Catherine Tira of Bethel Township, was granted permission from an Armstrong County judge last month for the exhumation and autopsy to determine if exposure to radiation and chemical contaminants at NUMEC contributed to her death.

If Wecht's autopsy documents one of 22 cancers or other work-related maladies, then Tira and her siblings stand to collect $150,000 from a federal government program that pays money and medical benefits to ill workers of atomic weapon employers or their survivors.

In the 1960s, Sulava worked in NUMEC's laundry facility, which had the reputation as a highly contaminated work area.

Sulava complained to the federal Atomic Energy Commission about what she said were overexposures to radiation at the plant. She reported setting off the Geiger counters when she would leave work.

Following the exhumation, as Ameno walked to the two-bay garage in the cemetery for the autopsy, she said, "What Pauline tried to say then, hopefully she can tell us now."

Suited in protective paper white coveralls and plastic aprons fashioned from green lawn and leaf bags, Wecht and Mancuso set up shop in the spacious garage with their instruments and a slew of containers and plastic bags for samples.

When Mancuso opened the casket, another silence fell.

There was Sulava's body perfectly preserved.

Her raven hair was pulled back revealing a smooth and creamy complexion. Even her eye makeup was still intact.

Sulava still had the face of a beautiful woman who looked like she had only fallen asleep in her turquoise suit.

"The body is in a remarkable state of preservation for someone who has been interred for 40 years," Wecht said.

"This is rare," he said. "Certainly the embalming was done quite competently and diligently."

In contrast, when Wecht conducted 30 autopsies on victims of Hurricane Katrina several years ago, he said he could not have differentiated the organs if they were placed together on a tray because "they were all so completely decomposed."

That was not the case with Sulava's remains. Even organs that are known to decompose quickly were still intact, specifically, the brain and pancreas, according to Wecht.

He and Mancuso were able to take samples from all the major organs and other parts of the body.

Ameno, who has been raising private funds for the autopsy, was more than satisfied with the Friday's results.

"This is something that through Pauline and Cathy will open up brand new doors for not just NUMEC workers but also workers at sites throughout the country."

After the autopsy, Sulava's remains were interred back in her grave Friday afternoon.

Preliminary results could be available in several weeks.

Source: Valley News Dispatch