Jack Cuccia was brought out of retirement to help identify the victims after the deadly Pulse shooting in an Orlando nightclub.
Jack Cuccia had retired from a county position after 35 years and was working part-time at an Ocoee funeral home when he got a call June 12, 2016, from the Orange County Medical Examiner’s office. There had been a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, in downtown Orlando, earlier that morning, and his expertise was needed.
Would he be willing to come out of retirement and temporarily resume his role as medical examiner?
Cuccia had investigated all types of deaths in his decades with the Orange County office, and officials were requesting his services, once again, in the family-assistance department. His job was to help question family members in an attempt to identify the 49 shooting victims.
“You have to know the right questions to ask them and comfort them in any way possible because it’s such a tragedy at that time,” Cuccia said. “It’s very tedious. You don’t tell them that (their) loved one passed because at that time we didn’t know who was who. … (I’d say), ‘Tell me a little bit about your loved one.’ ‘Well, he was 5 foot 10 and had a tattoo on his left arm.’”
Every small detail helped identify the bodies.
Cuccia said because he dealt with the victims’ families, he didn’t have to go to the nightclub. He asked questions, filled out paperwork and obtaining information to be passed to the next team.
In all, it took just 72 hours to match the names to the victims. Cuccia’s assignment was complete.
“It was a short but very meaningful 72 hours,” he said.
“It was an eye awakening experience because you meet so many different families, so many different cultures, and you have to meet with each family, with their sensitive needs and their religions and so on,” Cuccia said. “And you have to make sure they feel like the most important person in the room, and you have to do anything possible to help them move on to the next phase of what they have to do for their loved one.”
Cuccia said he was honored to have been called for the assignment.
It was the first of this magnitude, though, he said. While working for the medical examiner’s office, he was assigned to handle the deaths following the February 1998 tornadoes that struck Central Florida, and he was on the office team during the high-profile murder case of 6-year-old Caylee Marie Anthony in 2008.
When Cuccia had completed his task with the Pulse assignment, he received a letter from the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office thanking him for his immediate response.
“By your offer of assistance at the family assistance center and at our office, our office was able to successfully provide the necessary communications with family members … and for that we will be forever grateful to your contribution.”
And then his life returned to normal, and he continued with his job at DeGusipe Funeral Home and Crematory, in Ocoee.
About a month ago, Cuccia received a package in the mail containing a multicolored-heart quilt. A card from the Orlando Modern Quilt Guild explained the quilt was made by members of the guild and/or the international quilting community. More than 1,800 quilts were created with materials donated from 22 countries and all 50 states, and they were given to everyone involved in the Pulse tragedy.
“It was all a surprise because I (had) received my thank you’s, letters and also a verbal from the mayor and the chief medical examiner and the program manager,” he said.
The package also had a commemorative coin from Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ office and a note written by Jacobs.
“I remain deeply grateful for your leadership and efforts in the days immediately following this unimaginable tragedy on June 12, 2016,” the note read. “Although two years have passed, because of you, the memories and legacies of our 49 angels will never be forgotten, and our community will forever remain Orlando Strong and Orlando United. Now and forever more, we remain one family, one heart and one pulse.”