Facing South Florida: COVID Cemetery

Sunday’s edition of Facing acknowledged the one-year mark since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic with a story not seen before.

Video Transcript

ANNOUNCER: From CBS 4 news, this is Facing South Florida with Jim DeFede.

JIM DEFEDE: Good morning. I'm Jim DeFede, and welcome to Facing South Florida. Later in today's show, we have a major development in a story we've been covering for two years. The fight for safer working conditions for the cabin cleaners and baggage handlers at Miami International Airport. But first, it's important to acknowledge the one year mark since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic. We have tried to tell a few of the many stories surrounding this tragedy, but this morning, we are going to bring you something you haven't seen before. A small group of county employees who go about their job with purpose and dignity as they care for COVID's lost and forgotten dead.

We begin our story where it will ultimately end. A cemetery in the heart of Miami-Dade county. Over the past year, this has become the final resting place for those who had no one to care for them after the coronavirus stole their lives.

SANDRA WITTY: This is Gabriel Hernandez. This one is Lang Nathaniel.

JIM DEFEDE: But before they arrive here, they have one other stop to make. Since the start of the pandemic a year ago, more than 5,000 people have died in Miami-Dade county due to COVID-19.

DARREN CAPRARA: This is cooler number five. This is the cooler that we reserve for decomposed cases and cases that perhaps could be hazardous.

JIM DEFEDE: As the operations manager for the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office, it fell to Darren Caprara to deal with the surge in COVID-19 cases.

DARREN CAPRARA: What we've done with the pandemic is made sure that all our COVID cases are processed through this cooler. To make sure that we separate our COVID cases from our natural cases, we went ahead and used an orange sticker system. So you'll notice that the ones with orange stickers, biohazard stickers, are the ones that either have COVID or possibly have COVID.

JIM DEFEDE: Not every COVID case comes through the ME's office. Most individuals are transferred from the place they died directly to local funeral parlors, where families make the necessary arrangements. But there are hundreds of individuals with no place to go, no families to grieve for them, no money to bury them. They are the lost and forgotten dead of COVID, and the responsibility for them falls to Caprara and a small team of investigators.

DARREN CAPRARA: We refer to our program as a program of last resort. Our preference for every single case that comes to us would be to find either a family member or a friend or someone to care for this individual so that that individual can have some sort of arrangement or tribute with people that knew them in life.

JIM DEFEDE: And who oversees that part of it?

DARREN CAPRARA: That program is run by Miss Sandra Witty.

SANDRA WITTY: We use social media a lot. We do a lot of social media. We look especially on Facebook. We always try to find some sort of connection between the person that we have there to somebody on Facebook. We have other means also where we look at old phone numbers, old addresses, any old records that we find in hospitals and nursing homes, and we usually try to link that information to the decedent that we have in our office.

JIM DEFEDE: Assisting her is Tanya, and together the two women document their efforts to track down even the most distant of relations. Sometimes they stumble into long simmering family dramas. 54-year-old male, wife claimed to have been separated from the decedent and refused to make arrangements.

SANDRA WITTY: We hear a lot of different stories from a lot of different families. That's just life.

JIM DEFEDE: Those stories can also serve as a reminder of the loneliness felt by so many at the end. 69-year-old female, no next of kin.

SANDRA WITTY: Sometimes, you know, we'll keep a body there for longer than we're supposed to just because we sent out a letter or because we have a gut feeling, somebody is going to call or somebody is going to answer or something's going to come up.

JIM DEFEDE: And yet even when a family member is found, circumstances may make it financially impossible to do anything. 75-year-old male, daughter stated her mom, decedent's wife, is ill. Daughter is too consumed caring for her mom and cannot afford arrangements.

SANDRA WITTY: There are plenty of cases that, you know, kind of bring a tear to our eye.

JIM DEFEDE: Or there's this one. 80-year-old male, nephew did not have the funds to pay for arrangements. His name was Gabriel Hernandez. Tell me about Gabriel.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: Well he was like a second father to me.

JIM DEFEDE: Ulysses Hernandez said his uncle came from Cuba more than 30 years ago, initially living in New Jersey before settling in Miami. He never married, never had kids, worked in restaurants, but was never able to save any money. It was a Friday night when Ulysses, who lives in Orlando, last spoke to his uncle after he was taken to the emergency room of Mercy Hospital.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: Told me that he had a fever, they were checking him for the virus. When I called him on Saturday morning, his phone just went to voicemail, and it was like that until I was able to get in touch with the nurses. And they told me he had tested positive for the virus. That was it from there. He declined, his kidneys failed, his lungs were literally ravaged by the virus. Within a week, there was really nothing else more that we could do. We had an agreement that I wasn't going to let him suffer, so we had to take the hard decision of disconnecting him from the respirator.

JIM DEFEDE: Married and with two kids of his own, Ulysses said he said he didn't know what to do with his uncle's body.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: My wife wasn't working at the time. I was the only one working. She had been laid off because of the pandemic issues, and I was the only one supporting the house, and we really couldn't afford it at the time. He didn't have anything prepared. He couldn't afford it himself either.

JIM DEFEDE: That's when he spoke to Sandra.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: Basically she told me they will take care of everything, not to worry about it.

JIM DEFEDE: And that brings us back here. Under a canopy of mahogany trees are gravestones that bear no names, only numbers. Purchased in 1935 for the sum of just $10, this parcel of land became Miami's Potter's field, a resting place for those who died alone and penniless. Over the span of nearly 100 years, some 20,000 remains were laid to rest on this 10 acre plot along 87th Avenue, just south of Miller Road. The finite nature of both life and land forced the county to stop burying the bodies back in the 90s, opting instead to cremate them.

In a typical year, the county cremates 600 to 700 bodies through their indigent cremation services program. Often those individuals are homeless or drug addicts who have no real ties to Miami. COVID has changed that dynamic. And so the numbers continue to grow. Every few weeks, Sandra and Tanya deliver the cremated remains to the cemetery. And it is here in this corner of the graveyard where those remains will be scattered along a circle of small white stones.

SANDRA WITTY: The first step is going to be this. We look at the box, and we make sure that this name coincides with the paperwork that we have at hand.

JIM DEFEDE: There is no ceremony, no moment of silence. Nevertheless, they are still mindful of what they are doing.

DARREN CAPRARA: It's impossible to do this job without coming to the realization that you as a stranger are essentially the last person interacting with this individual. So in that regard, it can be sad and somber. But also I like to point out that, you know, we put so much care into what we do. There is a sense that these people get to spend their last moments with a department and a group of people that truly care.

SANDRA WITTY: The fact that we're not shocked by it doesn't mean that, you know, that it doesn't affect us and that we're not sensitive to it. We really are. This is Gabriel Hernandez.

JIM DEFEDE: Amid rolling clouds and a slight breeze, Gabriel Hernandez's journey came to an end.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: It's been hard. I still listen to his voice mail every once in a while. The last voicemail that he left me was a few days before he went in the hospital. I still have it.

GABRIEL HERNANDEZ: [SPEAKING SPANISH] OK, Ulysses. When you can, call me. Bye.

JIM DEFEDE: Ulysses wishes he could have done more, but the pandemic has been hard on his family. After his uncle passed away, his father-in-law also died from COVID. The fact he couldn't do more for his uncle weighs on him. Do you ever feel guilty about it?

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: Yes, of course. I wish I could have done different. I wish I would have a place that I could go visit him every day.

JIM DEFEDE: He can visit the cemetery in Miami when he comes down here. Bruce Hyma, the former medical examiner who created the rock garden and for whom the cemetery is named, made sure of it.

ULYSSES HERNANDEZ: It was a good relief knowing that at least he would have a place to rest. That it wouldn't be what I actually wanted, but it will be better than anything else that I thought might happen.

JIM DEFEDE: Ulysses Gonzalez said he is hoping to get some time off from work soon so he can drive down and visit the cemetery. May he find a sense of peace when he does. We'll be right back.