In dealing with death and dying as a profession, Bill Demrow began his training long ago, as a teenager. He is experienced, for sure, and there’s probably little in the way of tumultuous times that he has not seen in his long career — and little that he has not faced with bravery.
As Lincoln County’s coroner for twenty-nine years, Demrow investigated hundreds of deaths, including two of his own sisters and his best friend. He was part of disaster teams that worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as well as at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport at the tragic Flight 5191 runway crash. He’s also been a community leader around Stanford, in Lincoln County, where he led a successful fund-raising drive to help rebuild the aging, inadequate Ft. Logan Hospital there. For many years, too, Demrow has worked as a funeral director, gaining the confidences of many for his caring, competent way.
“As a boy, I grew up at Buffalo Springs Cemetery where my father, a grave digger, took care of forty-one acres,” said Demrow. Little Bill was very involved in the work, too. “We had to keep the cemetery mowed and trimmed. By age 13, I was capable of physically digging a grave by hand.” Little Bill also enjoyed having friends come for campouts and playing games around the gravestones.
Demrow remembers how he was impressed by the funeral directors who came around the cemetery. “They always seemed to have a nice car and had it made,” he remarked. “And I always knew I’d someday be a funeral director.” Not a strong student at Stanford High School, a counselor there told him he’d “never make it” because of the demands of a professional school. He proved the counselor wrong, enrolling in a mortuary school in Louisville after graduating from high school and getting married. To be sure, life was tough for the two during that period.
“We were broke and hungry,” said Demrow. “I went to school five days a week, worked for a Chevy dealer washing cars at night, and then I’d work funeral home visitations.” He graduated while working at a funeral home in Science Hill, south of Stanford. He soon became a good friend of Pulaski County’s coroner, took a class from him and Demrow and became a certified coroner, also.
Demrow and his wife then moved back to Lincoln County, where he received an appointment to finish the county coroner’s term of office. That led to the next election for the position. He ran and won. The victory started a streak of seven more election victories (every four years), adding to the appointment for a total of twenty-nine years—a long and fruitful career. Besides his daily activities during that time, he was respected by his peers enough to serve three times as president of the Kentucky Coroners Association.
For Bill Demrow, his experiences over the years might be worthy of a book. Take, for example, his mission of mercy to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There, Demrow was a part of the twelve-member “Mass Fatality Response Team for Kentucky.” The situation was ugly when the group arrived with police escort, seven days after the hurricane hit. “We arrived the same day the levy broke,” he said. “We went to an aftermath of a hurricane that turned into the aftermath of a flood.” Along with those trying to help and bring hope, there was looting and violence…“a crime scene, with shooting going on,” said Demrow.
The response team, said Demrow, “was directly involved with about three hundred of the death victims in the catastrophe. The bodies, because of the water, were like ‘mush,’ almost liquefied,” he said, and the team went the extra mile in some instances when feasible, by “moving bodies, saying a prayer for each, then tagging and bagging it.”
The work had to be done in daylight because of a night curfew that was in place. They slept nights at a local volunteer fire department, where they made their beds on a concrete floor. “We ate our ‘beenie weenies,’” he said. “It was a brutal time.”
While many responders wore uniforms, Demrow’s team came to be known as “The Dirty Dozen,” partly because they wore jeans and other less official clothing. But as much as anything, it likely was a term of respect for their work under difficult conditions. “It bothered us,” he noted, “but it also was rewarding because we were doing something that not all can do.”
What became another gigantic challenge for the long-time coroner was what happened nearly a year later, much closer to home. The Flight 5191 air crash at Blue Grass Airport, Lexington, on the morning of Aug. 27, 2006 killed forty-nine people aboard the Comair flight. The previous night, Demrow was in Stanford celebrating his sister Bobbie’s fiftieth birthday. Plans were for Bobbie and her husband to board a flight to Aruba on that August morning…
After the crash, Demrow was contacted to be on standby alert to help with body removal and identification at the site. Following his instincts, he decided to drive to the site without waiting for confirmation. Along the way, he received a troubling phone call from his wife.
“Bill, Bobbie’s plane left at 6:30 (from Blue Grass Field)…,” she said.
“Lots of planes going out…it wouldn’t be her,” Bill answered.
But Demrow soon learned his sister and brother-in-law perished in Flight 5191. He would need to decide if he would be a part of the gut-wrenching body removal and identification process in the wreckage of the plane. Not surprisingly, he chose to be there, and was right in the middle of the gruesome residue of a cruel death scene. It was a chilling situation to encounter, especially with the severe emotional strain piled on Demrow’s shoulders.
“I wouldn’t tell anybody about my sister and brother-in-law being there because I knew they’d make me leave,” he said. “We worked in shifts. Everything (in the plane) was melted and fused together…the bodies, plastic, seats. My sister had braces, so I knew I’d found her if I found the braces. I was determined to do all possible to find them.”
Even today, Demrow doesn’t know if the human remains he sifted through were those of family.
Ironically, only two years before the death of Bobbie, Demrow’s youngest sister died after an auto accident in Boyle County. Demrow arrived at the emergency room before she passed and described the last moments. “Her head was bandaged and she could not see or talk,” he said. “I spoke and asked if she could hear me…and she squeezed my hand. She died about two hours later.”
Though no longer the Lincoln County coroner, Demrow has owned and directed a couple of funeral homes in Lincoln County and sees no reason to leave the business because of the confidence so many families have in him after his many years of service in the community. He has stayed busy in other ways, too. He recently served as chairperson of a fund-raising drive to save, along with rebuild, the Ft. Logan Hospital in Stanford. The aging, run down original hospital was bought by the well-established Ephraim McDowell Hospital in Danville, who also made a proposal to the Lincoln County community. They would build a new hospital in town if the citizens could raise a million dollars.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done,” said Demrow, who dedicated a year to the drive. “We got lots of support from our businesses, including one $50,000 donation and many gave as little as a dollar, along with doing bake sales and other things.” In about fourteen months, the community effort Demrow spearheaded raised 1.4 million dollars, and the new Ft. Logan Hospital is impressive. “We now have a fine facility to show. It is newer, cleaner and up-to-date,” he said.
In addition to his fund-raising efforts, Demrow is now serving as the chairperson for the Emphraim McDowell Ft. Logan Hospital board, and a few years back he spent a term as Lincoln County judge executive, as well as eight years as the fire chief in Waynesburg, where he resides. He once was named “Citizen of the Year” by the local chamber of commerce. Amazingly, Demrow carves out some time to enjoy his hobbies as a Corvette and Harley-Davidson enthusiast.
Dr. Tracey Corey, MD, Kentucky’s chief medical examiner, gave high praise to Demrow for what he has done to touch others. “Bill Demrow is a true public servant—always doing his job for the right reasons—to serve his fellow Kentuckians and for the public good. He is empathetic, fiercely loyal to friends and family, and humble. I am proud to count him as my friend and colleague.”
For Bill Demrow, he has quite a unique perspective on life. He lives each day as if it were his last, making each day one of service to others, and realizing better than most that we will all die some day. He has plenty proof of that understanding, to be sure. And for those who have associated with Demrow over the years, they have plenty proof that he has used his years of life to do courageous and caring acts.
Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, a teacher, public speaker and an author of four books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and three in the “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes” series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. This story is from Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3, due to be released in December 2012. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or “friend” him on Facebook.