NEW: Body of Columbia marathoner who died in Savannah is returning to South Carolina

jmonk@thestate.comNovember 10, 2013 

Georgia Daily Life

Runners are cheered to the finish of the Rock 'n' Roll Savannah Half Marathon Saturday Nov. 9, 2013 in Savannah Ga. (AP Photo/The Morning News, Richard Burkhart)

RICHARD BURKHART — AP

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 Old Woodlands neighborhood in Columbia, behind the VA hospital, and was well known in the community.

Update: Funeral for Zeman scheduled for Wednesday in Columbia (click here to read).

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 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.

Courson – who after the governor and the House speaker is the third most influential person in state government – gave him the cell phone 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.

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 thestate.com, 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 to 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.

Zeman 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 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.


From a family friend

The State received an email from Will Britt of Columbia, a fellow runner and family friend who was present when Jake Zeman collapsed Saturday:

“I do not presume to speak for the family, but I know they are appreciative that their request for the autopsy to be conducted as soon as possible was respected and accomplished.

I am also deeply saddened that the issue with the timing of the autopsy has resulted in any contention between the state of South Carolina and the state of Georgia.

Having been present during this horrible ordeal, I can say without hesitation that the people of Georgia, the staff of Savannah Memorial, its physicians and nurses, and the representatives of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon, showed incredible kindness and compassion. It was obvious that the loss was felt by all of these people, as the grief for a young man they did not know was reflected in their faces. One could not have asked for a more loving and caring environment for the family.

I beg everyone to refrain from any further inflammatory comments so that we can focus our attention on that which truly matters – supporting this wonderful and heartbroken family and saying good-bye to a dear friend.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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