Santa Fe, Texas, Shooting Takes Toll On Area's Chief Medical Examiner

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 9:03 am
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Families of some of the Santa Fe High School shooting victims are gathering in funeral homes this evening. The remains of all eight students and two teachers killed have been released from Galveston County's Medical Examiner's Office. The staff there were among the first to go inside the high school after the shooting. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the toll that has taken on the medical examiners.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Erin Barnhart has seen her share of what a gun can do to a person's body, but the chief medical examiner of Galveston County had never seen the scale of destruction she found inside the art classroom at Santa Fe High School.

ERIN BARNHART: I typically don't go out to the scene. So this was a different situation because of the nature of the incident.

WANG: She arrived at the school about six hours after the shooting began. Inside, the classroom was hot and stuffy. The AC was off. And what she saw, she says, was not a normal crime scene.

BARNHART: Painted murals on the walls and the school supplies on shelves and little art projects that the children completed. There's nowhere in my brain that had associated those things with a crime scene.

WANG: Barnhart remembers smelling clay, paint and other art supplies. She brought along extra investigators and other staffers from her office. And before a local funeral home came to help move the remains of the eight students and two teachers from the school, they took photos, collected the victim's belongings and studied the surroundings.

BARNHART: To be at the scene and see the victims in the positions, you know, in which they collapsed and the way they were in relation to each other and where in the school they were brings a different level of involvement emotionally and psychologically no matter how you prepare yourself for it. I think it's unavoidable.

WANG: Death is part of Barnhart's job. You can almost tell by how she talks about it without showing much emotion. But she says she and her team are used to managing death inside their own offices, not where lives are taken violently and especially not in a school.

All right. Where are we right now?

BARNHART: All right. So we're in the front office of the medical examiner's office. This is her...

WANG: Barnhart leads me through a small, gray building about 15 minutes away from Santa Fe High School. Through a window, you can see the two steel slabs her team used through the weekend to complete 10 autopsies.

BARNHART: This is our morgue. So we only have two stations in which to work at a time. So we were very cramped for space over the past few days.

WANG: On a nearby wall, four pink poster boards are taped together to form a giant chart.

Recognizing some of the names here - Christopher Stone, Aaron Kyle McLeod, Sabika Sheikh, Cynthia Tisdale, Jared Black, Shana Fisher.

BARNHART: Yes. That's all 10 of our victims.

WANG: Barnhart is now working on the final autopsy reports about the Santa Fe High School shooting victims. So far, her team's investigation has found that the vast majority of the injuries were from shotgun blasts.

BARNHART: The sheer volume of wounds that needed to be described and categorized and photographed and documented was significant and felt a bit overwhelming at times.

WANG: Barnhart pauses for a moment, lost in thought. It's still not easy to understand all the facts they've gathered.

BARNHART: These aren't people that you think of as people who should - or at high risk of getting shot.

WANG: She says her mind has been returning over and over to images she can't shake.

BARNHART: I think honestly the things that I'm - the pictures that I have in my head aren't things that anybody would want to hear about, that their images that I'll have to live with for the rest of my life.

WANG: Barnhart expects to finish the autopsy reports by mid-June, but she says the emotional work for her and her staff - that's going to take a lot longer. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Santa Fe, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.