This story was told to me the other day by an officer, who wanted to remain anonymous, so I’ll call him Frank. This incident took place in the final phase of Frank’s training in the mid 1990s.
On this particular night, he had just finished a call and drove northbound on a side street as he approached a major highway in his city. Frank stopped at a stop sign as he tried to decide if he should go left or right. A short time passed before the silence of the night exploded with the sound of crashing metal that sounded like a plane crash. It seemed to last forever and it was hard to believe a car accident could make so much noise. Frank looked over to his left and saw a huge cloud of smoke and debris heading northbound like a tornado of destruction.
He grabbed the microphone and notified dispatch of the collision and its location. He then drove westbound toward the debris cloud in anticipation of what he would find. He stopped his patrol car in the intersection with his emergency lights on and saw the crashed vehicles. They were mangled pieces of twisted metal that used to be cars. He got out of his vehicle and decided to go up to the car, which was closest to him. When he walked up to the driver side of that car, he was shocked by what he saw.
Inside that car were two dead people, but it wasn’t the fact they were dead that affected him. It was the way they looked. The driver side of the vehicle was smashed and pushed in toward the driver’s compartment with such force that it looked like the people inside had been killed instantly. A man was sitting in the driver seat and the woman, who was his wife, was in the passenger seat. Both had their eyes closed and appeared to be sleeping peacefully. The woman didn’t appear to have any visible injuries that you would expect from such an impact. The man was a different story.
Frank saw a huge chunk of skin and flesh missing from the left side of the driver’s neck. It was so deep that Frank was able to see inside the man’s throat. He was also amazed at the lack of blood on the man’s neck. Frank then looked down at the center console and saw something that was amazing under the circumstances. Despite the violent impact of death that had been inflicted upon this couple, they were still holding hands. Frank showed me how the fingers had been interlaced with one hand on top of the other. The fingers and hands looked to him just as peaceful as the couple did, but equally troubling how they had died.
Frank just stood there for a moment and absorbed what was in front of him. Seconds ago he had been sitting at a stop sign, wondering which way to go. During that same time, this husband and wife had been holding hands together on a date night while on their way to pick up their child from grandma’s house. Now they were dead and a family was destroyed in the same time it took to snap your fingers.
He then heard yelling and screaming coming from another car, which snapped him out of what he had seen in the first car. This car had major front end damage and had been the vehicle which had broadsided the couple. Frank went to that driver and saw that one of his feet had been amputated at the ankle and was barely attached by what looked like a string. Frank then smelled the odor of a driver who had been drinking. He also described it as “the odor of blood and alcohol mixed together.”As he told me that part, Frank said he could clearly see the collision scene and he could actually smell the same odor now as he retold the story 19 years later.
Days after the collision, he learned some history about the married couple from the traffic investigators. Frank learned the couple had a five year old child at home, who was now an orphan. The child was being babysat by the grandparents when the couple had gone on a “date night” because it had been such a long time since they had done that together. They were on their way home when the drunk driver had stolen the child’s mother and father. This made the story more personal for Frank because of what he had seen that night and what he learned about the innocent people involved.
He told me how he felt about that particular intersection from that moment on. The thought of driving through the intersection caused him to feel anxiety. Throughout his patrol time, Frank never worked that part of the city because he didn’t want to drive through that area. He always chose to work a different area, which kept him away from that intersection of death. If for some reason he was put in that area, he would drive around that particular intersection. He just plain avoided it because it bothered him.
Years later, he transferred to a different detail in the police department. One day he decided to drive through this intersection by himself. As he got closer to the intersection, he felt his heart beating faster as his chest tightened and perspiration started to form on his forehead. This all happened at once as part of him went back to that night of death from all those years ago. He had been to bloody scenes involving gunshot victims and other violent crimes since that night, but this was the one that bothered him most. It was the one that had stayed with him after all these years.
With the feeling of anxiety, he kept driving toward the point of no return. He was then through the intersection, which now felt like the finish line of a marathon with no emotional energy left in him. He had a brief moment of triumph as relief flowed through him. He then did it again with almost the same level of anticipation and anxiety. After a few more passes through the intersection, the feeling decreased as each layer of emotional baggage seemed to be lifted off his shoulders. He described it with such detail that I felt like I was there with him, going through that intersection of personal turmoil, relief, and liberation.
Years later, he can drive through that part of town without the feelings he once had. Now it’s a memory from a night long ago. This was a very traumatic experience for such a young officer, who was so new to the job.
Remember, it’s OK to tell you’re partner a call bothered you. Chances are, it bothered them too.