- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Hagerstown, Md.-based company that has transported dead bodies to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore for 38 years has quit, saying it can no longer afford increasing gas prices.

“The gas prices have [really] impacted us,” Kerfoot Livery Service owner Thomas E. Wetzel Sr. said Friday. “We haven’t gotten a raise from them in 10 years.”

The Washington County company and its counterparts in other Maryland counties transport bodies from the point of death to Baltimore, where autopsies are performed. Autopsies generally are required for homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. They now receive $2 for every mile they carry a body to Baltimore. Prior to July 1, the rate was $1.75, established in 1996 when the average gas price was roughly $1.26 a gallon. Return trips are unpaid, except for homicide cases, Mr. Wetzel said.

Mary Ripple, deputy chief of the Medical Examiner’s Office, said the agency increased the rate as much as it could.

“It’s just as much as the budget allows,” she said.

Mr. Wetzel said the agency said it would try to increase the rate in a couple of years, but that it’s too late.

“The gas is now $3.09 [a gallon] where I live,” he said. “The medical examiners have given us a quarter’s raise. … They’re trying to give us an increase to $2.25 or $2.50, but I can’t wait until 2008.”

Mr. Wetzel said he wanted to continue to work for the agency but cannot afford it.

“If they make it worth my while, I would work for them,” he said. “A man cannot go on and work for 10 years, then get a quarter’s [pay] increase. If they come up with at least another dollar, I’ll consider it. It’s really tough with liability insurance and workers’ compensation, along with gas prices.”

Mr. Wetzel still has a contract with Maryland’s Anatomy Board and roughly 24 funeral homes throughout the state.

However, it is likely too late for him to reconsider working for the Medical Examiner’s Office. The agency recently found a transportation company from West Virginia to pick up the bodies.

Mr. Wetzel said officials could not find anyone in Maryland because the pay is so low.

He thinks the agency is spending too much money on a new building planned for opening in January 2010.

“All they’re concerned about is their own building and directing their own money to this new facility and not the people doing the dirty work in the field,” Mr. Wetzel said.

Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler told the Hagerstown Herald-Mail that he was “deeply saddened” by Mr. Wetzel’s decision to end the verbal agreement.

• This article is based in part of wire service reports.

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