At the Salt River Forensic Pathology Services, senior forensic officer Ashley Daniels has seen it all.
Every person who dies an unnatural death in the city ends up there: murders, car accidents, suicides, even sudden and post-surgical deaths that warrant further investigation. With an escalation in interpersonal violence, their fridges have been fuller than ever.
This night is no different: it’s Saturday on a pay-day weekend, and as Daniels said: “Where there’s money, there’s violence.”
We are spending a shift with forensic officers Calvin Mesane and Merlin Daniels. They are one of three crews who will drive around collecting Cape Town’s “unexpected dead” tonight.
The first call of the night comes in. It’s a pedestrian knocked over by a speeding car in Strandfontein. We get to the scene in under the target response time of 40 minutes, but the victim has already been lying on the side of the road for nearly four hours. It is covered in a silver space blanket except for one hand, which rests on a thicket of white flowers where she was flung due to the impact with the car. When Mesane lifts the blanket to photograph the body, the woman is still wearing her work uniform.
“My job is basically to be the eyes and ears of the pathologist,” Mesane said. “So my portion of the investigation needs to be as thorough as I can.”
The victim’s friends, Christopher Jini and Anele Mqikela, are crying nearby. They had been waiting for her to arrive home from work so they could have a drink together.
“The three of us were best friends,” Jini said. “She was everything to us… she was the glue.”
They say her name is Uyanda* and she was a mother of two, but her family is back home in Worcester. They don’t yet know she’s dead.
According to police, she crossed the road while drunk, clutching a beer bottle.
Mesane and Daniels get a stretcher out of their van, cover it in a white plastic bag, hoist Uyanda’s body on to it before wrapping it in the plastic.
Other health-care workers had warned us to brace ourselves for this moment.
“You’ve seen the baggage handlers at the airport? That’s how those guys treat bodies,” we were told.
But there is no excessive force: it is simply a dead weight to be moved, and it’s their job to do it without compromising any evidence it could yield in post mortem.
Later that night, we’re called out to the scene of a stabbing. A man lies crumpled at the intersection of two roads in Philippi East. He was killed around 11pm; the forensics van arrives to take him away at 4am.
Police had to wait for a crime scene photographer because there is only one on duty over weekends for the Mitchells Plain area, Mesane said.
Dried rivulets of blood mark the spot where Anathi’s* life ended, and a cluster of neighbours crowded round are quick to chase away a curious dog that sniffs too close.
A woman wearing a gown and slippers wails into the night.
Each body is driven back to Salt River mortuary and is wheeled in through the back doors, marked “BODY RECEIVING AREA”. It is hefted from stretcher to steel gurney, and meticulously documented: clothing, valuables, weight, height, case number.
Labels with the details are attached to the body with cable ties at the wrist and ankle, and valuables are removed before being bagged and tagged.
Mesane swings open the heavy door to the “incoming” fridge, sending a gust of sickly sweet cold air rushing out. Anathi and Uyanda’s bodies are wheeled in to join the rest of the weekend’s victims awaiting post mortem.
They are spaced out on the 60 racks of the walk-in fridge, with larger bodies resting on gurneys around the floor. The biggest body they’ve ever hauled in was 320 kg.
The bodies are partially covered by plastic bags but are still clearly visible: naked, stiff, colours already beginning to change. On some, the damage that caused their demise is very clear while others still look almost untouched.
A woman’s arm sticks off the side of a gurney, escaping the plastic cover. Stretch marks dapple her breast.
Human, but profoundly no longer a person.
At the back of the cold-room there’s a thick, tightly-sealed blue bag. It seems to contain something weighty, but the contents are not shaped liked a body. These are for decomposing remains found in the veld. They have to be collected in pieces, and come with an overwhelming odour.
On the days those bags are opened for autopsies, Mesane said, even the office workers in the upper administration block know all about it.
“The fridge is currently quite empty,” he added. “There’s times here when there’s not enough space.”
Recently, they’ve seen a huge escalation in their case load, which at once stage caused a backlog of 100 cases. A few years ago, less than 3 000 bodies would pass through the facility in a year. Now, it’s more than 4 000.
“We have over 300 cases per month that go through the dissection area. We would have five doctors on every day, doing three post mortems each,” Mesane said.
For Muslim, Hindu and Jewish families, the pathology services is open 24/7 and will call in a doctor on standby to perform post mortems over the weekend. This is so they are able to observe religious traditions which require burials within days after death.
For the rest of the fridge’s occupants, the real investigation begins on Monday. Forensic officers and doctors will cut open the bodies and carefully examine and weigh each organ, searching for clues amidst the damage.
They are gathering the evidence that will be crucial if these cases ever make it to court; if Uyanda and Anathi’s families are ever to see justice for their loved ones.