On Ice

While hockey and competitive figure skating can be brutal, they are rarely fatal. Naturally, civilians don’t normally think of ice arenas as potential morgues. But the topic came up the other day, during a minor crisis at the St. Louis Park Aquatic Park and Recreation Center. Paul Omodt, City Council member and president of the local youth hockey association, had rolled up his sleeves to help after storms had knocked out power to much of St. Louis Park. The rec center was swarming with parents of the class of 2005. They worked in the dim light supplied by a backup generator to decorate the halls, ceilings, and bathrooms for the senior party scheduled for that evening. But the pumps and filters for the water park were shut down and the two sheets of ice were melting, not slowly. The largest casualty here would likely be just a few days of summer hockey clinics. But in case of a genuine catastrophe, it might also impair an official but gruesome secondary function of the ice facility—the storage of large numbers of dead people.

The solution, Omodt explained, is a new one thousand kilowatt-hour diesel generator that will be able to power the entire facility when supply from Xcel Energy comes up short. The City Council had just approved $280,000 to get one designed and built. While reliable refrigeration of dead people and uninterrupted hockey might be enough of a win-win for any public facility, large power consumers with this kind of backup can also earn lower rates by staying off the grid during peak demand hours.

“Customers who have alternative sources they can switch to,” said Ed Legge, an Xcel Energy spokesman, “can become ‘interruptible.’ They have lower rates. It works pretty well.” In fact, rec center manager Craig Panning anticipates it will work so well that the discounts should pay for the new generator in about nine years.

During these nine years, it is unlikely that the arenas in St. Louis Park will be pressed into service as morgues. For your garden-variety disaster, says Kevin Smith, “The best things are refrigerated trucks.” Smith works for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, and when we spoke he praised the trucks for the kind of mobility and flexibility that are necessary for disaster response. “Ice arenas are part of the plan,” he said, but it would take a very high death toll to require their use. “When you go and watch a hockey game it’s not the kind of thing you think about. But somebody has to plan for these things.”

Oddly, the Department of Homeland Security is not providing direction or funding for “these things.” It’s up to the locals, and the one person in the state who has probably planned the most for such things is Lee Spangrud. Spangrud is manager of planning and maintenance for the Minneapolis Airports Commission, and he directs the maintenance of a fleet of twenty-five refrigerated trucks designated for backup morgue service to the area. “Anything over thirty-five casualties and we would be asked to set up a temporary morgue,” he said. “Obviously, it’s something you hope will never happen.” If it does, the trucks can be scrambled and specially equipped for the myriad agencies involved, including county medical examiners, the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Transportation Security Administration, and even embalmers and morticians.”

Shawn Wilson, an investigator for the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office and a deputy coroner for Chisago County, also spoke to me recently about the ways and means of caring for large numbers of dead. Designating ice arenas is nothing new.

“That goes back as long as this office has been in existence. The Met Center was slated as a perfect site,” said Wilson. Beyond the obvious benefits of mass refrigeration, he explained, skating rinks are very big and have no infrastructure in the way. Another consideration when designating a site for morgue use is conversion back to the original purpose. For this, said Wilson, rinks are also ideal. “The ice can be melted and cleaned up.” And, he added, there is “not much impact on the psyche” for future users compared to using, say, a school.

Like everyone else I spoke to on the topic, Wilson anticipates the use of rinks in morgue service only in “the most extreme circumstances, where you have five thousand dead.”

While this has not happened in Minnesota, ice rinks elsewhere have sheltered the dead from a number of disasters. In 1912, a curling rink in Nova Scotia was reportedly used for remains recovered from the Titanic sinking. After the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey, the Washington Post reported that remains of victims were placed in an ice rink in Izmit. Here in the U.S., a propane explosion in Indianapolis during a production of Holiday on Ice killed seventy-three people in 1963, and the sheet there was directly converted to a morgue. The rink in the World’s Fair New York City Building in Queens narrowly escaped similar notoriety. It was hastily prepared as a morgue on September 11, 2001, but never used.

The most conspicuously vacant sheet of ice in the Twin Cities is at the Xcel Energy Center, which suffered the death of last year’s NHL season. I asked Ed Legge if the Xcel Center is “interruptible” and therefore able to refrigerate the dead off the grid, should a mass-casualty disaster also disrupt the power supply. Legge explained that despite the large, illuminated Xcel sign on the front of the building, the arena is a customer, not a part of Xcel Energy proper, and he couldn’t speak for it. A spokesman for the Xcel Center was able to disclose their power arrangement when I contacted him. Xcel Center depends almost entirely on its namesake for current. At the moment, the arena isn’t ready to put skaters or disaster victims on the ice. “Right now it’s just a slab of concrete down there,” he said.—Joe Pastoor