Tuesday, June 21, 2005

6/21/05a

7:47 a.m. I am outside of my Subject's building. They are high-end condos. I enter the building and find her name on the mailbox. Not surprisingly, the door is key-entry and secured. There are two parking garages on the north and south sides of the building. I decide to set up across the street so I can keep an eye on both exits. She shouldn't be hard to spot. She drives a Jaguar convertible.

Today I'll talk about my first forensics case...or cases. There were two of them back to back. A baptism by fire. I'm afraid this isn't an uplifting story, but it is the reality of working as a death investigator. In truth, I paid a price to some degree for every case I went out on.

I have been working here for two days now and still haven't had a case on my shift. But the night guys have been swamped, so at least I've been able to watch a few more autopsies.

The telephone rings and I answer it, "Investigations, Polly." It is dispatch. They are reporting a fatal car accident on I-95 only a few exits down from the medical examiner's office. The dispatcher only knows that it involved both the north and southbound lanes and traffic has been completely blocked off in either direction. Finally! I get to go out on a case. I note the time on a pad of paper and ask the name of the officer in charge. It's Florida Highway Patrol this time. Officer Hugh.

The investigator who is mentoring me is a big, slow, southern guy. He's got a mustache and dark hair. It's hard for me to believe he's about my age. He looks at least 40. Maybe it's the hairdo. I'll call him "Mullet". Mullet instructs me to grab a set of latex gloves and the camera. He takes a clipboard and a pen and we walk out to the Explorer.

I call Dwight, our transport guy, after we are on the road. Ever since one of the investigators ended up on disability from lifting bodies for 15 years, the local government has taken to hiring contract workers to transport to the MEO. And that's okay by me. I can think of a hundred things I'd rather do than lift a 400 pound man onto a flimsy stretcher. More than once we would have a body so large that the fire department had to be called to break the door frame so we could get it out.

I am eager to learn and ask a lot of questions en route. I tend to talk a lot when I'm nervous, but Mullet doesn't seem to mind. He sits quietly and I can almost see the gears turning in his mind. He is going over what needs to be done once we arrive on scene. He is experienced enough to know that this will be a bad one.

Mullet turns on the cherries and we speed up an off ramp onto the now empty freeway. Weird. Never thought I'd be driving south in the northbound lane of an interstate. On the other side of the median, traffic is backed up as far as the eye can see. It is 8:30am and this accident hit right in the middle of morning rush hour.

As we approach the scene, Mullet slows and pulls onto the left shoulder. I see several FHP officers scattered about. Two are taking measurements of skid marks. One is taking photographs. Another is standing off to the side interviewing a witness.

I see an 18-wheeler on it's side in the ditch. I see a smashed white Lincoln sedan. The hood has been crushed like an accordion. The top is no longer there so that it looks like a makeshift convertible. I see the driver's side door torn off and lying in the dirt several feet away. I wonder how much of that damage was done by the Jaws of Life and how much was from the accident. I peek inside the car and see blood everywhere...smears on the dash and pools on the leather seats. And there in the back seat, I see a backpack broken open with schoolbooks strewn across floor. I begin to shake.

Mullet ushers me over to Officer Hugh. The officer is wearing a sand brown uniform and is standing near a white sheet on the ground. He is sketching the scene. I see a woman's pale hand and pink shoe sticking out from beneath the sheet. I see a few small patches of red blood slowly staining their way through the white.

Mullet greets Officer Hugh and asks him for the details. I half listen as Officer Hugh explains that the Lincoln was heading southbound with two passengers when a red pick-up truck rear-ended it. The pick-up took off. Meanwhile, the Lincoln spun out of control into the grassy median. It crossed into oncoming traffic, where it was hit head-on by the 18-wheeler.

Just a mother on her way to drop off her son at school. Like she'd probably done a hundred times before. The boy, 14-years-old, was transported via helicopter to the hospital, but Officer Hugh said his neck was broken and he was already dead before the copter landed.

I want to cry but I can't. I just watch as Mullet draws back the sheet. I see a woman in her late 30's. Her skin is pale and beautiful and her long hair is splayed out around her lovely face. She looks peaceful. Like an angel. I see no external injuries but for a few scrapes and an ankle twisted and broken so severely that it likely would have been amputated had she survived.

Mullet examines the body. He takes photographs. Then he goes through her pockets. Takes off her rings and jewlery. He puts all of her valuables in an evidence bag, seals it, and logs it.

Dwight shows up in his Econovan. He draws a gurney from the back along with a sheet and plastic to wrap the body in. I watch as he and an assistant turn the vic on her side and tuck the plastic in around her. Then they lift her onto the gurney, strap her in, and load her into the truck. "See you back at the office in 20 minutes," he says, "I have to stop by the hospital and pick up the kid."

Several minutes later, we are finally ready to leave. As we pull away, I watch in the rearview mirror as a tow truck loads what is left of the Lincoln onto a platform. I stare out the window. Mullet tries to be cheerful. "So! What did you think of your first scene?" He asks. "It sucked," I say back. He seems to get the hint and remains silent the rest of the trip back.

Later on, I have to go down to the autopsy suite to fingerprint a gunshot murder victim. Mother and son are being autopsied side by side at the station across from me. I listen to the investigator who went to the hospital for the boy. He tells of how the kid's shirt had been cut off in the emergency room before he was declared. Later, the ER staff let the father come in and see his son before he was transported to the MEO. "It's so cold in here. You must be cold, son." The father wept as he took off his own shirt and draped it over his boy.

I look down. The fingerprint card blurs as my eyes fill with tears. I wipe my face on my sleeve before they can fall.

I have to write the rest of this later.

21 comments:

Sling Words said...

honest...painful...{shudder}

Tamara said...

*teary-eyed*

k said...

heart breakin... :'(

Jeff Meyerson said...

Major bummer. That is really sad.

Did they ever find the pickup that hit her?

Polly P.I. said...

Jeff,
I don't think so. They kept an eye out for it for days, but it is likely it was somebody traveling through.

Mad Scientist said...

(((hugs)) Great story. Thanks for sharing all this Polly

Higgy said...

Wow - now I have tears in my eyes...

This is all still fantastic stuff.

Anonymous said...

Glad you got that out. Must be a bit cathartic?

Life is precious and if we forget that, we become something less human ourselves.

Susan said...

Polly, you clearly have a book (or two) in you. While the subjects of some of this are rather grim, your writing is wonderful.

Marvin | Paranoid Android said...

I have nothing meaningful to add, but I can't not comment on this. It's touching and sad, but it's something that happens everyday. When we hear it on the news, it's thrown at us, then pulled away as we are distracted by the next news highlight. But you show that each accident affects many people simultaneously, and I can't even begin to fathom this happening thousands of times each year. This is the closest I've come to tears in...in at least the past few months. I mean...it's so senseless and destructive.

man, now I'm crying, too...

sandy said...

I was doing OK until the part about the dad and the shirt. Lost it completely at that point...

Nancy said...

My best friend was killed in a similar fashion on Valentine's Day in 1995. Her Camaro went across the median and was hit by a truck. She was 19 and no one would tell me the details of what exactly happened, figured I couldn't handle it. Probably were right. It's been ten years and I think of her almost every day. Named my daughter after her -- Camille. She's six. Today she was talking to my 4 year old son about how unique her name is. She said, "Mom knew a girl at her school named Camille. Do you remember her, mom?"

"Yes, I do, honey," was all I could manage.

Polly P.I. said...

Nancy...

I'm so sorry about your friend.

((hugs))

Jeff Meyerson said...

Yeah, Sandy, it was the shirt that got me.

Slyeyes said...

I never understand people who slow down to get a good look at accidents. When I was growing up, a bad one happened a block from where I lived. I'll never forget the sounds of the mom screaming her son's name as she rocked his lifeless, bloody body in her arms. I think of that whenever I pass an accident and pray I never hear that horrible sound again.

kibby F5 said...

*the sound of tears welling in my eyes*

The father's actions are what got to me too....

Kaf said...

Polly.. I won't bring the blog down any further, but I know exactly how that feels. Months, years, later and you still feel the fresh emotion ... {{{{Great Big Hug For You}}}}

MOTW said...

Two memories brought by your very touching account, Polly.

My husband and I have known a couple we've been friends with for years, before either of us had kis. They had the first kid and one day they were over at our apartment for supper. The baby was learning to crawl. When he moved onto our sculpted wool rug, his little hands told him Oooo! this is something new. John, his daddy, is about 6'2". John crawled over the top of his son and the baby looked up at his daddy. John said softly, "What do you see, Little Man? I want to see it. What do you hear? I want to hear it. I want to be part of your world." It was something I'll never forget as the baby grinned and then crawled forward again. (Their son just graduated this May.) To read what the father said and did for his son just broke my heart.

Second memory: There was an accident on I-20 in Arlington TX where a family station wagon crossed the median and was struck. Everyone died. I will never ever forgive the Star Telegram newspaper (we call them the StartleGram) for what they did the next day. They printed a large overhead photo in color the next day of the blood spilled on the highway. As MarvinPA said above, it was about sensationalism. Concrete barriers were installed within weeks, not months, to prevent the like of that human tragedy ever happening again.

Polly, I printed your story out and had my 14 and 12 year-olds read it. I thank you for bringing the human element of your experience to us.

Polly P.I. said...

Concrete barriers were installed within weeks, not months, to prevent the like of that human tragedy ever happening again.

Though concrete barriers are better than grassy medians at preventing cross-over accidents, I feel that the single best protection drives can have (and the most attractive) are trees surrounding the lane lanes on either side.

Trees will stop a vehicle, but they absorb a lot of impact and often keep a car from ricocheting back into traffic.

cuz said...

I don't really have much to add beyond I whole-heartedly agree with the book idea. You have the ability to write such heart wrenching accounts with great compassion. Tough to read, but I’m glad you shared.

Love you!

Polly P.I. said...

Love you too, Cuz. How was the family reunion?