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Splendid Splinter chilling in Scottsdale

Posted: Saturday August 02, 2003 4:44 PM
Updated: Saturday August 02, 2003 9:21 PM
  Paula Lemler Alcor Life Extension Foundation PR manager Paula Lemler shows off the storage facility. AP

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Seven shiny stainless steel containers, each 9 feet tall, offer no hint of their contents.

Certainly no one would guess that one of baseball's greatest players, the Splendid Splinter himself, is stored upside down inside one of them, preserved at minus-320 degrees.

Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 in the majors, is among 18 people whose bodies have been frozen with care -- inside and out -- in a process known as cryonic suspension. They are stored in tanks filled with liquid nitrogen, a bit of vapor spewing from the brims, behind locked doors at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

Another 40 human heads -- known as "neuros" -- are here, too, along with a handful of pet dogs and cats that are preserved until they might play fetch or cough up a hairball again.

They await the day, should it ever come, that science and technology can restore them to life, and when necessary attach their heads to new bodies, in order to give them another go on Earth.

"We promise nothing, except our best efforts," said Dr. Jerry Lemler, the foundation's president and chief executive officer. "We absolutely make no promises that this will work."

Lemler was a high school dropout and teenage lounge singer before returning to school and eventually earning his medical degree. He was practicing psychiatry when he picked up Dr. K. Eric Drexler's book on "nanotechnology" and became intensely interested in how entire bodies might someday be "grown."

"My grandchild, who is expected in September, will no doubt live in a world free of disease," Lemler said. "I suspect the first people on this planet who will not have to die of natural causes are crawling if not walking around already.

"And I realized very poignantly that the only possibility at all that I would have to see that day would be through cryonic suspension."

The foundation will not confirm that Williams is among the "members" preserved here. Names are kept secret if the person so wishes. His presence was revealed in court documents when his oldest daughter challenged the decision he made late in life to be brought here.

Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell dropped her fight when a judge agreed to allow a $645,000 trust to be distributed equally among Ferrell, half-brother John Henry Williams and half-sister Claudia Williams.

Ferrell contended her father wanted to be cremated with his ashes scattered over his favorite fishing grounds off the Florida Keys, as a 1996 will stipulated. But her siblings said he was of sound mind when he signed an agreement to be cryonically preserved in 2000. Williams died of cardiac arrest on July 5, 2002, at age 83.

Others have no such privacy concerns. Their photos line the walls of the foundation's front office.

Among them is Dick Jones, a comedy writer for the "Carol Burnett Show" and "Mama's Family." He even gave the foundation his Emmy award, presumably to be retrieved later.

The first person ever cryonically preserved, Dr. James Bedford, is here. He was packed in liquid nitrogen in a metal container by his family in 1967 and was moved to Alcor 12 years ago.

"We took him at no charge because we felt it was such an honor to have the very first person," said Lemler's wife, Paula, the foundation's media liaison.

Founded in 1972, Alcor is one of two facilities available for those who wish to, as a foundation's brochure says, "take a brief intermission before Act 2."

The foundation, which is expanding to allow two preservation procedures to be conducted at once, has about 650 live members awaiting suspension. One of them is Lemler, who is undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. For him, the process is no far-off possibility.

"This may or may not work," he said. "It may be even a long shot, but at least I've got to give it a chance. I've never been one to be a spectator in my own life, and I'm not going to stop now."

It is best to die of natural causes, so as soon as death occurs, the cool-down can begin.

"Our key word around here is urgency," board chairman Michael Riskin said, "because we don't look upon somebody that's been clinically pronounced dead as permanently dead. We see them as potentially alive again in the future, so that's the care that we give them, as soon as possible."

Alcor has contracts with EMTs in Phoenix, Los Angeles and southern Florida, where Williams died.

The remains are rushed to Scottsdale, where doctors working under contract lower the temperature of the body from the inside and out, cooling them to zero degrees for a few days before lowering them into the containers. If required, this is where the head comes off.

The publicity from the Williams lawsuit generated immense interest in Alcor -- more than a million hits on the foundation's Web site -- but no more business.

"It was kind of puzzling to me," Lemler said. "My hope is that the situation created enough background noise that maybe not now, but five years from now, when someone starts thinking about his own mortality, it triggers a thought in his head, 'Maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all.'"

The bodies are stored feet-up because the brain is considered the most important part to preserve. If for some reason the liquid nitrogen would spill or evaporate, the head would be the last to be uncovered.

A full-body suspension costs $120,000. Heads go for $50,000. Some of the money goes to a trust fund to pay for upkeep. The rest goes to the foundation, which is registered as nonprofit.

Most members use life insurance policies to cover the cost. A pamphlet lists agents familiar with doing business with Alcor.

Those waiting for death pay annual dues -- $398 for the first family member. Those who die in accidents probably won't be in good enough shape to be preserved. One member was lost in the World Trade Center disaster.

But for those who finish their days in one piece, as Williams did, hope can outlive life itself.

Or as Yogi Berra might say, "It ain't over even when it's over."

 
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Alcor preserving heads, bodies in hope of reanimation
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