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Bailey: Inside the Cooler: ‘People come to Myrtle Beach to get lost in the crowd'

Robert Edge

Horry County Coroner Robert Edge in "The Cooler," a room that stores unclaimed bodies. Most of the deceased overdosed on opioids. Photo by Steve Bailey.

CONWAY — It’s cold inside The Cooler. That’s because everyone in here is dead.

As twin fans keep the chilly air moving, Robert Edge, Horry County’s coroner for more than three decades, explains the practical problems of managing all these bodies in the Opioid Capital of South Carolina.

Bodies tend to come and go, waiting to be claimed by family members. On this Monday, all 16 body trays are filled with people with names like Wayne and Sandra and Floyd. If he gets in a pinch, Edge can always find a helpful local funeral home willing to temporarily take a body off his hands. He says there’s discussion about building a second cooler — very similar to a big meat locker — to handle “long-termers” (those not claimed for months) while the current cooler would be used for “short-termers.”

Edge estimates that maybe 95% of the bodies inside The Cooler are from opioid deaths. “We are running wide open as far as the drug overdoses go,” says the coroner, who works out of a squat red brick building behind the M.L. Brown Jr. Public Safety Facility, just down from the Conway Feed and Garden Center.

The Grand Strand, long renowned for its beaches and golf courses, has emerged as the West Virginia of South Carolina when it comes to opioid deaths. West Virginia easily leads the nation in overdose deaths, with 91 per 100,000 residents in 2021, the most recent numbers available. But Horry County is giving it a run for its money: The county reported 87 deaths per 100,000 the same year.

Horry County, with a large transient population, has a death rate twice the statewide average. No other county comes close.

"People come to Myrtle Beach to get lost in the crowd," Coroner Edge says.

And they do just that, and too many of them wind up on a slab in The Cooler.

Imagine the outcry if homicides spiked 160% in three years. That’s exactly what has happened with the silent epidemic of drug deaths in Horry County. And that doesn’t even begin to tell you how bad it is. This might: There were 30 homicides in Horry County in 2021; there were 272 overdose deaths, up from 105 in 2018.

Horry, the state’s fourth-most populous county, is no flash in the pan, either. It has been No. 1 in drug overdose deaths in South Carolina for three consecutive years.

Two years ago, I wrote about how the pandemic and fentanyl had driven overdose deaths to record levels in South Carolina. Maybe everyone had read too much about death at that point because I didn’t get a single response from readers. Not one.

Since then, overdose deaths have continued to soar statewide, to 2,168 in 2021 — about equal to the number of homicides, suicides and road deaths in South Carolina annually. Combined.

Drugs, Edge says, are everywhere in Horry County, and they are an equal opportunity killer.

"Families with large incomes, families with little incomes. It doesn’t distinguish," says Edge, who was born in North Myrtle Beach and has spent his entire 72 years here.

The people in his cooler were someone’s son or daughter. Someone’s brother or sister, mother or father. They come from the beach side of the waterway and the Conway side, Edge says. They are white, and they are black. The drugs don’t care.

When I was in college, it seemed like everybody in my generation did drugs, me included. We were all hippies, marching to end the Vietnam War, in search of peace and love if we were lucky. (I rarely was.)

Life was a lot more forgiving then, the drugs included. Today, illegal drugs are much more powerful, scarily so. Fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin; two or three grains (think grains of salt) can kill you. Our best hope for saving lives isn’t more cops but getting people to understand the absolute life-and-death risks they are assuming when they take this poison.

"We used to see a lot of reporters, but they don’t come by any more," the coroner is saying as he walks me to the door.

That’s too bad. If more people could see the inside of Bob Edge’s Cooler — and feel the death so close — it might be a little less full today.

Steve Bailey can be reached at

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