[This is the best article on this story to date--HKH]
The cold reality of the Williams fight
Spotlight thrown on Ariz. facility
By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff, 7/13/2002
COTTSDALE, Ariz. - The body of the latest arrival at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation warehouse here hangs upside down in cryonic suspension tank No. 6.
The liquid-nitrogen gauge on the outside of the 10-foot-high gleaming silver tank reads 10, meaning the corpse within - that of Red Sox legend Ted Williams, according to his family members - is frozen at 325 degrees below zero. Tanks No. 2 through 5 hold four bodies each, with five severed heads stored just above them, but there are no other bodies or body parts inside the tank containing Williams. Two smaller tanks hold eight heads each.
The room, basically a big garage, is silent and well-lighted, the walls painted white, the air-conditioning just right. Thick padlocks seal each tank.
For the moment - and perhaps much longer - this is Ted Williams's tomb.
''Something wonderful is in store for those of us who choose this path,'' said Dr. Jerry Lemler, the Alcor CEO, who plans to be frozen when he dies.
A feud in the Williams family, destined for a Florida court soon, centers on the contents of tank 6. If John Henry Williams, the Hall-of-Fame slugger's only son, prevails, Williams's body would remain frozen indefinitely in the hopes that medical science, perhaps decades from now, can find a way to revive him. But Williams's eldest daughter wants her father's remains cremated and scattered off the Florida coast.
Caught in the middle, Lemler said he would do whatever the courts tell him to. ''Alcor will of course comply with any court order,'' he said.
If the body were unfrozen, ''it would heat up quite quickly,'' he said. ''Cremation could proceed without incident.''
The Globe yesterday was given a rare tour of the Alcor facility, located in an office park rimmed by cactus and desert fauna in the northern business corridor of Scottsdale. Away from the serenity of the cold storage area, phones rang constantly, and the doorbell chimed every few minutes. The Alcor headquarters has become the center of international curiosity since news of Williams's arrangement became public last week.
Though cryonics seems macabre to some, foolish to others, and fascinating to a few, the Alcor office itself betrays little intrigue. Unknowing visitors, noting the row of tanks, might guess they had entered a microbrewery.
Casually attired employees yesterday sorted mail, answered calls, and scurried about in the front office. It's a mundane white-collar tableau save for the numerous photos that line the wall. One shows a handsome dark-haired man named ''FM-2030,'' whose ''first life cycle,'' in Alcor parlance, ended July 8, 2000.
''FM means Future Man. He renamed himself that,'' explained Karla Steen, the firm's marketing director. ''I don't think Future Man was saddened to come here. He saw it as his next step.''
Other photos include Dora Kent, 83 when she died, and Randall Robertson, pictured with long black hair, playing a bass guitar. He died at 29. Atop a shelf sits an Emmy award donated by ''Carol Burnett Show'' writer Dick Clair, who is frozen here, too.
Alcor has received 1,000 inquiries in the last week, compared with the 100 a week it typically received prior to Williams's death. Its Web site traffic has increased 120-fold. So far, the 30-year-old company has 49 people stored in the liquid-nitrogen tanks and 590 who pay $400 in annual dues while arranging for similar treatment when they die. The majority of clients, said Lemler, use their life insurance to pay the $50,000 price for freezing a head or the $120,000 for a full-body freezing.
A portion of the fees goes into an Alcor-controlled trust fund, now valued at $2 million, earmarked to cover ''adjusting and re-acclimating'' expenses after clients are brought back to life, said Lemler. Alcor takes possession of bodies under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, the same law that permits individuals to donate their bodies after death to medical schools, laboratories, or any government-approved facility. Alcor clients must sign legal documents indicating this desire; Williams presumably did so, though Alcor officials would not comment on Williams or even officially confirm the body's presence, citing ''patient confidentiality.''.
Alcor also asks family members to sign nonbinding affidavits proclaiming their support for cryonic freezing. Seven years ago, a dispute over a will led to a court-ordered unfreezing of a body, which was then cremated, the only such case in Alcor's history. None of the several challenges to the legality of their operation have succeeded, said Lemler. Cryonics remains legal in the United States.
Lemler described the average client as ''very intelligent and fiercely independent,'' words often used to describe Williams during his life. They have to be farsighted as well: Alcor officials estimate that it will be several decades before the technology to thaw, revive, and repair the deceased is developed. Cryonics believers say advances in nanotechnology, the engineering of microscopic objects, is the key to realizing their dreams.
''We could use nano-robots to make repairs to our cells,'' said Lemler.
Alcor also advises clients that none of cryonics technology might ever work, explaining in promotional material that medical science is far from devising methods to unfreeze tissue intact, not to mention restart life and cure the myriad conditions that cause death.
Williams died July 5 after a series of strokes and heart damage. Within 12 hours of death, according to family members, he was packed in ice and flown to the Alcor warehouse.
The main storage area contains seven large tanks and two small ones. Alcor members call them Bigfoot Dewar tanks, after the Dewar family whisky company, which used similar double-layer thermos containers. Each costs $20,000, said Lemler. A liquid nitrogen delivery truck pumps the cooling fluid into Bigfoot Dewar No. 1 twice a week. Grey tubing carries it to the other eight tanks.
No body parts or heads are visible, and the tanks are only opened for new arrivals. Security cameras, locks, and alarms guard the remains. Staff members enter the storage area about once a week to check on the tanks, while external computers monitor them around the clock. The bodies are kept upside down to preserve the heads in case of liquid nitrogen shortage, since the dropping liquid level would first expose the feet and then the torso before the head would be left unfrozen. Though Alcor officials consider the brain the essential component for future revival, entire heads are preserved because ''there's no better encasing than the head,' said Lemler.
Copies of a registry of the frozen corpses reside in three locations for security, but the identities are confidential. In addition, an underground storage facility in Hutchinson, Kan., houses personal effects of Alcor clients, such as wedding certificates, photos, rare coins, and jewelry, Lemler said.
Yesterday, Roxbury native Paul Garfield, 84, carried boxes around the Alcor office, where he occasionally volunteers. He recently retired from the glove-making business and has been an Alcor member for seven years.
''I just want to keep on living,'' he said. ''This is the only chance available at the moment.''
Garfield believes that heaven or some afterlife is a possibility. But what would happen if his body were revived while his soul was in heaven? Or would the departure of the soul make revival impossible?
''I guess it matters little where we go after we die, I suppose,'' he said. ''But I want to see how things develop. Not only will cryonics work, I think, but also space travel. We'll be flying through outer space. Imagine that?''
Raja Mishra can be reached at [email protected]
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/13/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.