Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Cold Day [Warning: Disturbing/Graphic] Part 2 of 2

I walk to the cubicle in the back of the room and sit down at the computer.  I Google the address of my fire scene.  I'd heard something about it on the news this morning but didn't pay much attention because the house was presumed abandoned and empty.  

Not far...that's good. I think.  Our medical examiner jurisdiction doesn't just include the Big City, but the entire 1600+ square mile county, as well.  That means a scene out to the farthest reaches could take more than an hour to get to…and that’s without factoring in traffic.

I grab my scene bag out of my locker and check to make sure I’ve got a fresh pair of latex gloves, some paper sacks for any wet or bloody evidence I collect, plastic bags, my camera, a flashlight, a measuring tape, a pair of scissors, flathead and Philips-head screwdrivers, boot covers, masks, a full-body suit (for when you find a body in a dumpster and you don’t want to throw away the clothes you’re wearing that day), and a ruler. 

Then I pull out my Posse Box, a glorified clipboard with a storage area under the writing surface.  I flip open the cover.  Graph paper, body charts, blank first call sheets (in case another body or two are located on-scene), pen, pencil (because pens don’t write in rain or when it’s below freezing), and worksheets to remind me what essential questions must be asked at various types of scenes…baby deaths, autoerotic asphyxiation, plane crashes, etc…

I close the box and Deuce yells from his office, “Polly!” 

I look up, “Yeah?”

“Don’t forget to get a core temperature!”

Foxy hollers from the control room, “Don’t you dare touch that thermometer!  Whoever used it last got goop all over it and didn’t bother to disinfect it afterward.”

I make a face.

“You’re obsessed with core temperatures, Boss!” Adroit pipes in.

Deuce walks to the door of his office and says to the room, “That’s because a good investigator always takes a core temperature.”  Then he walks back into his office and sits behind his desk.
Deuce isn’t serious, of course.  Getting a core temperature means getting a rectal temp.  There is no useful information to be gathered from taking a “core temp” on a burned, then frozen cadaver.  The temperature of the body is only really useful when you’re trying to determine how long the decedent has been dead.  And even then, there are so many variables that can influence how quickly a body cools that it’s almost better to just record the ambient temperature and then note whether the trunk is warmer or cooler than the hands.  If the hands are still warm and pliable, then you know the body hasn’t been down long.  If the hands are cool and the trunk is still warm, that tells you it’s been at least a couple hours.  If both the hands and the trunk are room temperature, you know it’s been several hours and you start to pay closer attention to lividity and rigor mortis. 

I bundle up in my winter garb and head out to my car.  It is bitterly cold out today.  I sigh.  I open the hatch back and peer into the laundry basket I put back there.  I rummage through until I find my ski mittens, ear muffs, and ski pants.  I gather my bundle, close the back, and make my way to the driver’s side. 

After I hop in, I press the button that starts the car, throw everything on the passenger seat and set the heat to high.  I tuck my gloves into my bag and hold up the ski pants.  These look a little small, I think.  I grabbed them off the hanger in the closet at o’dark thirty yesterday morning and shoved them in the laundry basket without a second thought.  Sure enough… these are size 10 child pants.  I suppose I could pull them up over my hips and leave them unbuttoned, but there’s not much I can do about the fact that the pant legs will end mid-calf. 

I sigh again and toss the pants into the back seat.  Oh well.  Nothing to be done about it now. 

I press the talk button on the steering wheel and hear a beep.  I say, “Navigation.” And the calm female voice of my little car programs in the address I feed to it while I drive out of the parking lot. 

I arrive on scene 15 minutes later.  This is a bad part of town.  Most of the buildings are dilapidated.  Gang signs are spray-painted on every other light pole and fence.  I see several people shivering against the cold as they wait for the city bus to pick them up.

The burned out house is still smoldering.  I clip the graph paper to the front of my Posse Box and pull out a pencil.  I write down the time.  Then I take out the camera and loop the strap around my wrist.  I turn it on for a second and make sure that it is, indeed, on picture mode.  It is.  I nod my head in satisfaction. 

Then I hear a knock at my window and turn to see a man in professional clothes and a parka standing there.  This must be the detective. I think.  Beat cops are always in uniform, so plain-clothes police are either detectives or under cover. 

I brace myself for the cold and step out of the car.  I am greeted by a middle-aged man with twinkling eyes and a bright smile.  He has a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of his nose.  “Well, hello!” He says.  “I’m Detective Frolic.  And who might you be?”  He looks at me intently.  I introduce myself and explain that I'm a new medical examiner investigator.  we shake hands.   But he doesn’t let my hand go and I look up at him.  “I sincerely hope we get to work together a lot in the future.  I also hope there’s not a ring under those gloves.” 

I smile and take my hand back.  “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but there is a ring, I’m afraid.” 

He puts his right hand to his heart as if it is breaking.  I laugh.  “So, what’s the story?” 
Frolic gets down to business as we walk to the edge of the crime scene tape on the sidewalk.  I pull out my camera and snap a picture from the side of the house and from the front.  The doors and windows are all blown out and black, sooty ash clings to the brick above them.  The doorway is a dark, open mouth with nothing but blackness inside.

“It wasn’t until the firefighters were finishing up that they found him.  The only thing we know for sure is that it’s a man.  You can guess why.”  He looks at me sideways and wiggles his eyebrows.  I wrinkle my nose.

“We did a canvas of the neighborhood and have a tentative ID for a homeless guy in his 30’s that may have been squatting here.  I’m going to follow up on it and get back to you later today.”
I nod and take more notes.  “So, where is the body?”  I say.

Just then, a young beat cop makes his way over to us.  His teeth are chattering despite all of his cold-weather gear.  I greet him and he smiles.  He looks so innocent, I think.  It makes me sad to imagine how that will change after a few years on the streets.  “I was the first officer on scene and I’ve been out here for the past four hours,” he says proudly.  I want to tell him to go sit in his patrol car for a while and warm up, for Pete’s sake.  He can barely talk without stuttering.  I think his lips and tongue are frozen. 

The three of us start the long walk to the back of the house.  Det. Frolic tells me to hold on to his coat as we make our way through the detritus.  “If you fall down in this you’ll get cut to ribbons,” he says. “And I would never forgive myself.”  There is glass from busted out windows, boards with nails sticking out of them, jagged shafts of splintered wood…everything blackened from the fire and everything coated in a thin sheet of ice from the fire fight this morning.  The officer with the chattering teeth is right behind me and I feel his hand at my elbow.  Well, don’t I just feel like a delicate flower, I think with a smile.  And they say chivalry is dead…

We reach what is left of a wooden fence leading to the backyard and I see what remains of the homeless man who probably started the fire that killed him.  I imagine what it would be like to have no heat on a night with wind chills as low as 30 degrees below zero.  Of course he started a fire.  And once he started to warm up, his exhausted body probably fell into a deep sleep.  And then the fire took him.

He was barely recognizable as human, let alone identifiable.  As Frolic so adeptly noted, you could tell he was male, but that was about it.  He lay on his back, his knees bent and to the sides.  His arms were bent at right angles and his hands were curled into claws.  This is common in fire deaths.  As the muscle tissue burns, it contracts and the body assumes this grotesque pose.  The clothing, if he was wearing any, was completely burned off the body.  His face was an eyeless, featureless gray mass.  There was muscle tissue and tendons exposed.  The scalp was completely burned away…exposing the bare cranium. 

I look closer.  The fire wasn’t super hot.  If it was, his brain would have boiled and his skull would have cracked open.  I don’t see any fractures.  

There isn’t much more for me to do with the body.  Any trace evidence that could be collected is long since gone.  There are no pockets to go through looking for ID.  And we won’t be able to definitively determine manner and cause of death until the autopsy.  It’s a bad idea to assume out of hand that the fire killed the man.  He could have had a fatal heart attack and kicked into the fire.  Or he could have been shot to death and the assailant started the fire to cover his tracks. 

I snap some pictures, step over the body, and get shots of different angles.  I take in the surroundings.  It looks like the front of the house…the brick portion…withstood the fire pretty well.  But the back of the house was a wood-frame add-on and it appears that our homeless guy had been on the second floor and “spilled out” when the floor caved in.    

After I finish taking pictures I step over the body again and we make our way back to the front of the house.  By now, I’m shivering all over and my nose is running.  When we get to the sidewalk, Frolic asks me if I want to take some photographs from inside.  I look up at the yawning black doorway.  “Is it safe?” I ask. 

“Sure!” He answers.  “I’ve been in there a few times already since the fire department left.”

I shrug.  “Sh-sure!”  I try to sound enthusiastic.  “Frolic takes my arm as we climb the ice-coated steps to the front door.  I walk inside.  It smells like a campfire.  Icicles hang from the ceiling.  I walk through what used to be a parlor area.  Water drips onto my head and I sigh. 

I take pictures as I go, ending at the edge of the collapsed portion where the man slid out into the frozen night.  Later on, as I review the photograph, I can just see the dead man’s clawed hand sticking up out of the rubble.   


Anonymous said...

Polly you are back! Just a fluke I came back here to reminisce. Anyway, glad you are blogging again.


Marvin | Paranoid Android said...

When are you going to turn all this into a book already?

Easton C. Kelsey said...

Good to see you are still writing. Maybe that's where your real passion is although you are definitely a renaissance person. Hope all is well.

Margaret Harvey said...

Excellently written article, if only all blogger offered the same level of content as you, the internet would be a much better place. Please keep it up!.Great tips, I would like to join your blog anyway.Waiting for some more review.Thank you
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