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Alone and Forgotten, 41 Unclaimed Heat Victims Buried in Mass Grave

August 26, 1995

HOMEWOOD, Ill. (AP) _ Forty-one forgotten and unclaimed victims of Chicago’s killer heat wave were given a pauper’s funeral, laid to rest in simple plywood coffins in a mass grave that will be left unmarked.

``The longer you stand here and look at the number of people buried here, it just overwhelms you,″ said a tearful Elaine Egdorff, walking through Homewood Memorial Cemetery with her granddaughter. ``These people just didn’t have anyone.″

Paul Ozienkiewicz, an Air Force veteran who also served in the merchant marine and Navy, did have someone but wound up in the 160-foot trench anyway.

He died with $3,900 in the bank, but relatives withdrew his money and left him to the city to bury at taxpayers’ expense, investigators said.

``We knew we could save this guy from Potter’s Field,″ said investigator Terry Drennan. ``It gets really frustrating.″

Few shed tears for the 68 people buried, including 27 other unclaimed bodies not linked to the heat that scorched the Chicago area and other states in July.

On the hottest day _ July 13 _ temperatures reached 106, and the homes of many elderly and infirm residents became ovens. The death toll from the heat stands at more than 580.

The Cook County Public Administrator’s Office, which handles unclaimed bodies, and Chicago police searched the homes of victims and went through scrapbooks, mail and bank records, looking for clues about their past.

Some relatives were found but couldn’t afford the cost of a funeral. Others, like Ozienkiewicz’s family, left their relatives unclaimed.

``It’s important because to live and to die alone is a human tragedy, but not to be remembered and mourned after human life is an ugly blemish on human dignity,″ said Earl Lewis, a lay minister who conducted the service on Friday.

About 30 people, reporters and workers in the coroner’s office, attended the short service. The mass burial was the largest in Cook County history and was conducted on a day of above-average temperatures, an all-too-common occurrence in one of the hottest summers on record.

No plaque or stone was planned for the grave. Plain yellow name tags on the coffins were the only clues to the identities of the dead, giving names and dates of death.

Among the dead was Lorraine Purkey, 78. She lived surrounded by people in an apartment building on the city’s north side, but she died alone July 18, with her cats as company.

She had $400 in her bank account, enough to buy an air conditioner. But in her apartment was a notice from the state announcing her monthly food stamp allowance was being dropped to $13.76 a month.

``To me, it’s always a sad story,″ said John Turchan, assistant to the public administrator. ``Four hundred dollars certainly would have bought an air conditioner, but she also might have needed it for medical expenses, drugs or food.″

After the funeral, Homewood resident Mark Czernik and his 7-year-old son stopped briefly at the open grave to say a prayer for the dead. The boy threw two purple flowers into the grave before they left.

``To see them just thrown in the ground like that, it’s just a sad thing,″ Czernik said. ``That’s why you have family and friends. You just have to take care of them.″

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