Several things have brought this story to light. I wasn’t going to write it. I have many reasons, some rather personal, but I decided to leave this out of my previous books because I was still dealing with some angst over it. None of that matters; it’s an issue with which I have to deal. Something miraculous happened during my last two days as a police officer that allowed me the freedom to write the story. But I’ll share more on that later.
The deadly collision happened in 1992, and not a week goes by that I don’t think about my failure. It was a collective mistake, a horrible comedy of errors that garnered no laughs. I was the last man in line during a shoddily played pass-it-on game.
You’ve played it; a group of kids gather in a circle and then whisper a brief tidbit to the person to their right or left. In the time it takes to go from one person to the next, a few times, the information becomes garbled and typically ends up being completely different than the first person’s statement.
Sometimes a man cannot decipher, let alone explain, the things that haunt him. I’ve made some big mistakes, many forgotten, but not this one. Since that sunny day over thirty years ago, I’ve delivered some very difficult death notifications. It’s always an ugly task, even when you have no connection to the unwilling participants who are silently praying that you are wrong. That day, I gave a young woman the horrific news that her aunt had just lost her life in a car crash. The thing is, I was wrong.
The dispatcher blurted out my radio number, “306!”
After you’ve worked with someone for a time, you can detect the nuances of stress in their voice. Within a millisecond, I knew I was not receiving a barking dog complaint. The higher-pitched voice directed me to a bustling intersection where a loaded dump truck had just struck a sedan broadside. Reports of multiple injuries were coming in, and at least one person was found trapped inside the car. Not much more information was available. She had toned out the ambulance and firefighters as well.
I’d been a cop for over three years, and my right hand was reaching for the primary control switch for the Whelen lightbar even before she got all the information out. I flicked it to the far right—to the number four position—which turned on every emergency light, wig-wagging headlights, and the siren on full-wail mode. I mashed the accelerator pedal in unison with the flick of the switch.
The Chevy downshifted and sucked in massive amounts of air to compensate for the sudden dump of fuel down its cast-iron gullet. Small block Chevrolets had no peer in the elegant—yet visceral— sound emitted while producing the torque needed to hurtle you toward your destination.
The scene was worse than I expected. Uninvolved motorists had already surrounded the mangled car, and the dump truck was lying on its side. The driver of the truck was fine.
I could smell the acrid aftermath of a nasty crash: diesel fuel, antifreeze, overheated asbestos brake linings, and hot macadam pre-baked—then gouged deeply by sliding steel— in the afternoon sun.
The intersection has excellent visibility in all directions. That summer, there had been at least one other fatal crash when a driver misjudged the distance between themself and the oncoming vehicles hurtling toward them from both east and west. I shook my head in amazement each time I covered an accident there because it seemed impossible that drivers couldn’t discern their timing better. Redesigned a few years later, engineers added traffic lights to help folks make better-informed decisions. That summer, they were on their own and doing poorly.
One woman was deceased, one was transported to the hospital with serious injuries, and firefighters struggled to extract a young female passenger from the back seat. Her screams only added to the palpable horror that the scene visually suggested. She was later freed and had very few injuries. Thankfully, her screams appeared to be based on an understandable fear rather than pain.
One bright spot; a local physician stopped to help out on-scene. A competent doctor, she also served as a medical examiner when needed. It buoyed my spirits and let me focus on doing my investigation rather than getting in the way of the rescuers.
A Bangor police sergeant, who later became my supervisor at BPD, arrived to give me a hand clearing up the mess. A woman who arrived on the scene told me it was her family in the car. Her mother, aunt, and I believe a cousin or niece. Some details have faded while I have passed away the time. I know that after the initial mayhem, I had her sit in my cruiser to keep her calm. I parked to the north of the crash scene, so we faced away from the wreckage. I was informed quietly by other rescuers on-scene that they had identified the deceased individual as the woman’s aunt.
I double-checked this detail as I wanted her to have the most accurate information. The physician concurred. They had her driver’s license photograph and were positive on the identification.
Sitting in a cruiser across the center console from a grieving family member is probably the worst-case scenario for giving a death notification. Since she would need to go to the hospital to be with her mother and the young lady, who I believe was her niece, I determined it would be best to be completely honest. We had contacted her husband at work; he was coming directly to the scene to be with his wife.
I was clear and concise with her. I put my right hand on the lady’s shoulder and told her in my best consoling tone that her aunt was the person killed in the collision. She was upset but knew that her mother was still alive and currently on route to be cared for at the hospital.
Both of the scenarios are horrific. But if you give any human being a choice—and we seldom are given one——they will select their mother as the person they need the most in the future. Emotions become garbled and confusing in moments like that one. I remember her eyes; tear-filled but understanding what I was telling her. Maybe she also understood my low skill level in the ‘delivery of terrible news’ department.
I cannot say that she seemed relieved, but she did seem to take a more comfortable breath as she cried. Suddenly being thrust into an incident dealing with losing any family member is horrific; having a kid-cop share that with you in his best ‘I understand voice’ doesn’t make it much better. I turned down the Motorola police radio to a level that I could hear, but she would not be able to understand, and we waited together for her husband to arrive.
I struggled to hear the conversation between the mobile paramedics and rescue crew on-scene. There seemed to be confusion about who they were transporting to the hospital. I did my best to listen to the details, but my stomach turned over in place when I put it all together. It took a couple of minutes, but I surmised exactly why the Bangor Sergeant was now quietly tapping on my cruiser window. I felt that vomiting— right then— would show zero inner fortitude, so I turned to my left as he stood just to the rear of my B-pillar. The look on his face confirmed that the horrible day was worsening. I can only imagine the look he saw on mine.
I told the woman that I would be right back and that I was sure her husband would be there shortly. I think I said that to lift my spirits, not hers. I was hoping for the arrival of someone better at consoling another human than I was.
The story is precisely like the astute among us have surmised; the women in the car were sisters heading to visit the lady—now— sitting in my police car. The two women in the crash looked almost identical, being very close in age and appearance. The rescuers had misidentified the deceased woman as the aunt of the sad young lady in my cruiser.
While they had utilized the driver’s license photos to aid them in identification, the crash tossed the ladies’ purses around the car’s interior making it difficult to connect the right handbag with the correct owner. The women were—essentially—twins.
I had told the lady in my car that her aunt was dead and her mom was alive, and it sounds so blunt when written like that, but death is harsh no matter how you say it. Accident scenes are sad, frantic, horrible, and harsh. It was now up to me to soften the edges and deliver much sadder news to a partially relieved woman who would soon have been victimized three times. The first time, at notification about the crash, once again— by me— regarding the news that her aunt was dead, and now, by me again, in backtracking and informing her that her mother would not return. I felt numb, stupid, and useless. But I knew that I needed to make it right, for that is also part of this job. The job I always wanted, not knowing that it came with more bad days than good.
If someone ever tells you that they believed they were standing outside their own body and looking down on a scene, trust me, it’s a real phenomenon. I felt like I was watching a poorly directed movie, but I also knew I needed to correct my mistake in the soon-to-be-there presence of her husband. I sat silently and considered how young Patrolman Cotton would make this better.
And the radio continued to squawk as we waited together; she crying, in less of a panic, and me preparing to find a place to puke that wouldn’t be so obvious to everyone on the scene.
Join us in a week (or so) for Part Two of “Failures Not Oft Forgotten.”
From the Jagged Edge, I remain,
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