21 September, 2005

My Exorcism, Chapter Five ~ "No Chance to Rectify"

During those late-night discussions we’ve all probably had, the question of the best and worst ways to die arise. Various methods of suffocation seem to be near the top of the "worst" list, according to many people I’ve spoken with about this. I’d have to agree; I know I feel at least a mild surge of panic if someone even playfully puts a pillow over my face. Being buried alive, and not just Poe-style, has to be a torturous affair as well.

I’ve seen some strange burial suffocation deaths, and I’ll relate two of them in reverse order of occurrence.

The second “burial” I investigated was the scene of a construction site. A building was being modified, and both indoor and outdoor construction had been ongoing for some months. Outside, trenches for pipes were being dug.

Trench Digging Rule 1: Always shore up the sides of your trench so they don’t collapse on you.
Trench Digging Rule 2: Probably one should not do this kind of work under the influence of a mind-altering substance.

I’m sure OSHA states it more eloquently, but you get the idea.
The trench walls caved in on him quickly. He was only buried up to his upper chest (I say “only”), but the pressure was enough to prevent him from expanding his diaphragm to get air. Co-workers were unable to dig him out quickly enough, as the walls kept falling.

Cause of death:

Manner of death: Accident (Industrial)

The other "burial" - and this one occurred first - was in one of the few rural areas of the county. I arrived at work and was greeted by Dr. Dimitri Contostavlos, our medical examiner, with (and, containing no prelude whatsoever, typical of his conversation style):
“Happy Birthday, young woman. They’re re-enacting the movie Witness in Birmingham Township. Go investigate.” 
(Translation for those who haven’t seen Witness, and don't mind spoilers, near the end of the movie, a villain is buried in a grain silo.)

That’s exactly what happened at this scene, minus the villain, but including the cameras. Two elderly farmers’ attempts to empty a silo filled with corn went horribly wrong (I won’t bother explaining the detailed mechanics of how it happened.) The grain was released very quickly onto of the farmers inside the silo. The other farmer (his brother), made every effort to pull him out, not knowing his foot was trapped in the auger. The decedent eventually suffocated. I will not soon forget the details of the corn kernel imprints covering his skin, his shoes. 

The scene itself was a near circus. I cannot even name all of the investigating agencies present all these years later. I do remember the immense respect I felt for the logistics agent coordinating it all, keeping everyone safe, etc. It was not a good place to be, for anyone; the heat, the poor air quality inside the silo making investigation difficult, the decedent’s brother’s state of mind, and all of our absolute feeling of inefficacy in alleviating his apparent grief and guilt. The press helicopters stirring up dust and tempers did nothing to help.

As you might imagine, neither of these men died quickly or painlessly. We had a saying in our office: “no one ever dies a painful death.” This was, of course, not a credo or a philosophy we implemented when having discussions with decedents’ loved ones; rather it was a way of us dealing with the fact that often people do suffer in the perimortem interval, and discussing that with family is a very touchy issue. An investigator must maintain high standards of honesty, objectivity, and tact, and oftentimes it is difficult to simultaneously adhere to all three standards. 

This puts the investigator in a precarious position should a family member ask “Did he suffer?” Responding with “Yes, he was slowly crushed to death or and was probably conscious for much of it” is not acceptable, obviously. Much of the time, the suffering is self-evident. If an investigator is wholly honest with anyone who asks, it should be stated that there are many unknown factors; investigators and medical examiners usually cannot tell if or for how long someone is conscious or acutely aware of pain during the dying process. I could speculate, just like the loved ones inevitably do, but I didn’t voice these speculations.

But those speculations and re-creations were turned inward – and the primary difference, other than me possessing objectivity because the decedents were not people I knew - was made up for in empathy and knowledge. I know the anatomical mechanics and the physiological processes that occur during suffocation – or most deaths. I know what systems are breaking down and how those manifest. Having seen and analyzed the results, I can realistically imagine the suffering. And after my eyes shut, I often do.

This is, in part, why sleep eludes me.

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