'Army of maggots' invades Fresno morgue

Fresno County Coroner David Hadden said Wednesday that a maggot infestation at the county morgue is making working conditions there "intolerable," and criticized county supervisors for delaying plans for a new facility.

Supervisor Judy Case said uncertainty over the budget has slowed progress on what she called the county's top capital project.

Morgue employees, meanwhile, talked about the maggots, which they say quickly turn into swirling black flies that swarm throughout the autopsy area.

"They're everywhere," Deputy Coroner Kelly Wiesel said. "They dive-bomb you and, eventually, they just drop dead on the floor."

Wiesel said that while morgue workers encounter maggots and flies when they are sent to death scenes, "these are home-grown."

Dr. Michael Chambliss, an assistant pathologist, said he and another worker thought the infestation was localized until they moved equipment.

"It was like an army of maggots all along the wall," he said. "You can see them everywhere -- along the baseboard, coming out of the wall.

"They're in your hair, bouncing on your face, bouncing on your clothes." He added that it is difficult to keep flies out of bodies pathologists are examining.

On a tour of the morgue, a facility built in the 1940s, Hadden pointed out dead and dying insects and cracked linoleum, which he said was a perfect breeding area for pests and bacteria. At one point he admonished a television cameraman who put down his equipment nearby.

"Don't put anything on the floor!" he said, wincing.

Hadden didn't hide his impatience over delays in building the new morgue to replace what he called a dilapidated facility past it use-by date.

"We don't have air conditioning," he said. "So on these hot days, we turn on the swamp cooler and it gets very warm and humid, which are the ideal conditions for maggots. I don't know how they got in the walls, but they are deteriorated and old. It is horrible."

Hadden said someone in the morgue called Cal-OSHA to complain about the maggots.

"People who work in air-conditioned spaces put this kind of working environment on hold," he said in a shot at supervisors who voted to delay a new morgue.

Case said she understands Hadden's frustration, but added that there's no question the project will eventually be built. Supervisors recently voted to have county staffers wait until after Tuesday's special election before seeking board approval to use bond financing for the new morgue.

Given the uncertainty over county finances, it didn't make sense to approve bond financing, she said.

Supervisor Susan Anderson, however, said she opposed the delay approved by other supervisors 4-1 and called the existing morgue "embarrassing." She said now is the time to move ahead with a new facility.

"Now is a good time to borrow money," she said. "And we will most likely get a very low cost on construction. It's a good time to stimulate the economy and put people to work."