I wasn’t sure what I expected for my first one.
More blood maybe. Body parts or industrial wreckage. Maybe family members absolutely inconsolable. Maybe a last breath or a hand groping at my uniform shirt for help.
There was none of that.
There was a small cut on the man’s forehead, a smear of blood that somehow reminded me of a neighborhood game of street football when I was a kid. Our injuries were just about the same as his.
I was at McDonald’s and had just traded money for burgers when I heard the 911 operator page it out. Immediately, chest tightened and my heart sped up.
“Car versus train.”
Holy God. Car versus train.
It was on my side of the county but it was about 15 miles away. I slammed the lights and siren on and stomped on the gas. I’m sure I laid a strip of rubber from the drive-up through town and to the highway.
But no matter how fast I went, and I went fast, I wasn’t fast enough. It took a few minutes for the EMTs to respond and while I drove and waited for them to answer, all I could think was that this damned car – some of Detroit’s finest souped-up, turbo-charged heavy metal – wasn’t going fast enough, that it was never going to go fast enough.
Car versus train.
This was my accident scene. Regardless of anything else, this was mine. All the responsibility, unless I handed it off, was going to be mine. Every measurement and every picture and every question asked of everyone and anyone who might have seen, heard, or felt it, was mine.
So I tried to compartmentalize. I tried to shove thoughts of what I now knew to be a FedEx van driver outta my head and concentrate on what I needed to do. I ran our protocol over and over in my head, knowing that anything anyone official was going to need over the coming months would come from what I did in the next two to three hours.
And still the car wouldn’t go fast enough because it was a van versus train and still the EMTs hadn’t responded.
At some point during the chaos that was my head while I hurtled toward the scene, my sergeant arrived.
“30,” he radioed. “Expedite.”
Damnit. Damnit! Won’t this fucking hunk of crap go any faster!
My foot kept pounding on the gas pedal, trying to push it through the floor. Maybe, if I can dent the floorboard a little, I can get that much more out of the motor.
And then the EMTs arrived.
And then my sergeant got back on the radio to dispatch.
“Dispatch, we’ll need 10-79.”
Ten code for the coroner.
My foot came off the gas, less because I knew I should slow down than simple shock that this man I’d been running balls out to help was dead.
My car coasted how far? Half mile? A mile, maybe?
When I arrived at the scene, it was already a nightmare. Two cops, EMTs, and lots volunteer firemen who “came to help, son.”
Bullshit. They wanted to be able to tell their drinking buddies they “handled the scene.” Fuck that. The man is dead. There is no need for 10,493 volunteer firemen. Get out of my scene, let me do what I need to do.
At first, they helped organize the perimeter and I was grateful for that. But then they, along with a pile of gawkers, just wanted to see what was what. They just wanted to revel in the knowledge that this disaster, this horrible thing, hadn’t happened to them.
The van, a simple thing barely held together – cab to cargo – by two aluminum struts, had come completely apart. The Amtrack train struck it at 70 miles per hour in the passenger door and it disintegrated into two hulks.
The cargo area came apart like toilet paper in water. Packages went everywhere. But the cab/engine compartment just compressed. It fell in on itself as it got dragged along the track by the train. At some point, it flew off and landed in a pile of metal that didn’t even look real.
The driver got ejected from the madness early on, and that was why he looked so peaceful. At the time, I didn’t see him, he was already covered to keep his face outta the eyes of the gawkers and gore-whores. But I saw him later in some of the scene pix.
When we played street football, we’d play brutally hard for an hour or two, get all cut up and bruised and dirty, and then all of us would go crash out in Zeburn Wilson’s back yard until his crazy mom (who was later shot to death by his equally crazy dad…at least as I remember it) would wake us up and send us home.
Any one of us – alseep and slightly blood – could have been mistaken for that FedEx driver killed by a train.
Maybe it should have struck me harder. Maybe I should have had more invested in the fact that this guy was dead, and dead on my watch.
All I had to offer the family, I realized, was an accurate depiction of what happened. There was nothing else I could do for them. I had to tell them, as precisely as I could, what happened, regardless of who was at fault. I felt like I owed them that much.
There are times when I love this job and what I do now. There are times when I love this job more than any other job I’ve ever had. But there are also times when this job – with all of its bells and whistles and badges and shiny boots and pretty red and blue lights – is wholly and irreparably inadequate.
Wandering through the wreckage of a fatal collision just a few days before Christmas was absolutely one of those latter times.