Special to SEGAZINE
The body of a 35-year-old Columbia man who died near the finish of Saturday’s Savannah marathon road race was released Sunday evening and was to be transported to South Carolina, Richland County coroner Gary Watts said Sunday.
“Pressure” from South Carolinians got Georgia authorities to move up the date they had originally planned for an autopsy – Tuesday – to Sunday afternoon, Watts said.
The man was identified as Jake Zeman, according to the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. Zeman lived in the Shandon neighborhood in Columbia and was well known in the community.
Watts didn’t know exactly what had persuaded Georgia authorities to move up the autopsy date two days.
But Columbia city council member Moe Baddourah, who lives in Zeman’s Columbia neighborhood, said in a telephone interview he was contacted earlier Sunday by the Zeman family and asked if he could help.
Baddourah said he then called State Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, who also lives in the Shandon neighborhood.
Courson – who after the governor and the House speaker is the third most influential person in state government – gave him the cell telephone number of a top aide to Gov. Nikki Haley, Baddourah said. .
Courson told The State, “I gave Moe the number of Ted Pitts, the governor’s chief of staff, and told him to convey to Ted that I had a personal interest in this.”
Baddourah then called Pitts, who said he would try to help, Baddourah said..
Baddourah said he then telephoned the office of Georgia governor Nathan Deal, who like Haley is a Republican, and by chance talked to someone who agreed to help.
“Things then got going– exactly how they got going, I don’t know. But they got going,” said Baddourah.
A Haley spokesman said Sunday night, “The governor has been personally involved in working to bring the remains home since 10:30 Sunday morning.”
Originally, Watts told The State earlier Sunday afternoon, Georgia officials planned to delay the autopsy until Tuesday.
“Georgia said they don’t do autopsies on Sunday, and tomorrow is a holiday, and they don’t do them then either,” Watts said, who contacted Georgia authorities after Zeman’s family had asked him to see if he could help..
In a story posted earlier Sunday on The State’s Internet site, Watts had described himself as “amazed at that kind of delay in a big state like Georgia – even here in little old Columbia, South Carolina, we do autopsies every day of the year, including Christmas.”
When someone dies, officials have an obligation not to put off an autopsy if one is required. “It’s a compassion thing – the family is devastated, his wife is devastated. They want to get him home.”
Watts said the holdup was not with the Chatham County, Ga., coroner’s office, but with the office of the Georgia Chief Medical Examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta.
Unlike South Carolina, coroners in Georgia work for the state, and they are governed by the state medical examiner’s office, Watts said.
Shortly before 8 p.m. Sunday, Sherry Lang, a spokeswoman with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, contacted The State to confirm Zeman’s body had been released. Lang said she did not know any background information.
Watts said Zeman’s family was not against an autopsy, which could determine why someone so young and in seemingly good health died – they just wanted not have an unnecessary delay after such a traumatic event.
More than 15,000 runners participated in the Savannah marathon, which was the city’s third annual such run. A Columbia woman, Alyssa Kulik, won the women’s division, according to local news reports.
The Columbia runner collapsed as he neared the finish line and was pronounced dead in a local hospital.
The Lexington Medical Center’s Governor’s Cup, a half-marathon in Columbia on Saturday, attracted more than 1,800 runners in various distance categories.
Both Baddourah and Courson, who said he was “just on the periphery” of events, downplayed their roles.
“I just did it to help them – that’s what public officials are for,” Baddourah said.