ANCHORAGE (KTUU) The Alaska Division of Public Health is apologizing to an Anchorage family this week after a grieving widow was shown the wrong corpse. State officials say they are working to determine who misidentified the body and how it happened.
Princess Salvador said her husband and high school sweetheart Ferdinand “Ferdi” Salvador had left Friday night for a halibut fishing trip and was expected home the next day. Instead, police arrived at the door of her South Anchorage home Saturday, informing her that Ferdi and another man died when the boat capsized near Seward.
Family members say Salvador, a commercial truck driver, was boating with friends and likely fishing near Cape Fairfield. A survivor told family members that the men were able to climb on the belly of the overturned boat but were knocked back into the water when the skiff hit a rock. Salvador, 43, and Benjamin Jimenez, 53, were killed.
News of the death began a tortuous journey over the next several days as Princess asked for – and was denied – an opportunity to view her husband’s body. The couple’s four children had hoped see the body and say goodbye on Sunday, Father’s Day, she said.
Meantime, Princess couldn’t help but hope Ferdi might still be alive.
“My husband is a survivor. He knows how to swim and he’s been in that ocean so many times,” Princess said.
On Tuesday, after being told the body had for some reason been transported from Seward to Kenai before being returned to Anchorage, Princess was told she could view the body at a local funeral home.
There, she was shown the corpse of a man she did not recognize.
The body had gray hair. Her husband did not. It was the body of an older man. A smoker, based on the cigarettes included among the possessions handed to Princess, whose husband did not smoke.
Princess believes she was shown the body of Jimenez. The body wore an ankle tag that misidentified it as Ferdi, she said.
“The family needs an explanation. They owe it to us,” Princess said.
“They (the Medical Examiner’s Office) couldn’t explain it, what happened. They just said, ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what happened,’” she said. “They said one of the supervisors going to call me and explain, but they never did.”
She said she was given false hope when she realized the body at the funeral home was not her husband.
For a time, Princess thought Ferdinand might still be alive and that news of his death was another mistake. By the next day, however, the correct body was delivered to the funeral home and Princess learned that Ferdinand was indeed dead.
Asked for an explanation of how, when and where the body was misidentified, officials with the Division of Public Health declined to talk about the case in detail citing patient privacy laws.
A spokeswoman for the Division, which includes the State Medical Examiner’s Office, provided this statement, attributed to Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Butler.
"DHSS and the State Medical Examiner Office strive to practice the utmost professionalism and care when handing cases under its review. This includes working with grieving families to provide accurate and timely information about the death of a loved one. We sincerely apologize to the families involved in this unfortunate situation. The Division of Public Health and the State Medical Examiner Office are reviewing its policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again."
The case also raises questions about Medical Examiner’s Office policies. Princess Salvador said she was told multiple times that she could not view her husband’s body until it had been released by the medical examiner due to a state law.
But the Alaska Ombudsman found in 2016 that the Medical Examiner’s Office, contrary to state law, has failed to properly create regulations that govern how bodies are processed and how the office interacts with the public.
In other words, there does not appear to be any law that governs when the family of the deceased can view a body, because the Medical Examiner's Office has failed to properly create the relevant regulations.
Butler said he is investigating the mis-identification matter and that an effort is underway to create regulations for the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Butler would not talk about details of the Ferdinand Salvador examination, which he said are protected by privacy laws. He said he needs more information in order to determine how the mistake was made.
“I understand how frustrating that can be,” Butler said. “I would love to be able to just get this all figured out and resolved right away. But I want to make sure that we have all the information that is available.”
The state is prepared to begin a process of “secondary review” of evidence related to a body’s identification in order to add another layer of certainty to future body identifications, he said.