The first vehicular death I ever worked was like no other I’ve seen. I managed to go all summer and fall in training without being on duty for one traffic death other than a pedestrian struck by a car. Then one night in early December, while I was still in training, the skeleton crew (no pun intended, really!) operating the M.E.’s Office called me in to cover an overnight shift. One investigator had recently resigned, and the three who remained were weary from nonstop rotation. I was thrilled to have this responsibility, but the one rather common type of death with which I had no direct experience was vehicular deaths, so this was the one type of death I did not want to get a call to investigate.
So of course the only call I had all night was for just that – a vehicular accident. I don’t believe in fate at all, but it is interesting how my life has a habit of forcing me out of my comfort zones in rather extreme ways. While I don’t always relish this at the time, it does amount to some phenomenal learning experiences.
Also true to the weirdness that seems inevitable in this job (and often in my life), the first traffic fatality I investigated was not typical.
The death was reported to me by paramedics around 2 am. It was described as a single-vehicle accident, one fatality, and no other persons or vehicles thought to be involved. A young man driving a small truck had collided with a chain link fence and subsequently impacted with a tree.
We had two scene bags; I grabbed the one that was not used most recently thinking it would be well-stocked (my first mistake). Then I got horribly turned around trying to find the scene, which is now laughable to me as it was on a well-traveled, easy to find road. (Hey, it was dark and I was new to the area!) I finally arrived at the scene only to find that the Polaroid camera was out of film with no restock in the bag, and the 35mm slide camera was frozen (literally) with a dead battery. Fantastic. Pictures are vitally important in documenting scenes. Fortunately the local police took an abundance of pictures and processed a set for our office.
It was a frigid night – below 20 degrees is unusually cold for early December in southeastern PA. The police and I painstakingly took measurements of tire marks, drew sketches of the scene, and finally I examined the body.
While plain ethyl alcohol itself has very little odor, the commingling of blood and ethyl alcohol forms the toxic metabolite acetaldehyde, which produces a very distinct odor not easily forgotten - and very easily identified. I got to the point where I could often detect the presence of alcohol approaching any recently dead, exsanguinating decedent. If it hadn’t been clear from the circumstances of the accident that this driver was impaired, it was evident from the strong smell of his blood that alcohol was involved.
This brings us to what was not routine about this accident. The majority of single-vehicle fatalities involve impact injuries to the head and/or chest, whether it is from being ejected or from hitting the steering column and/or windshield.
This man was impaled.
His truck hit the chain link fence, kept going, and as it impacted with the tree, a metal post from the fence was pushed through the windshield, through his body, and into the seat. The police removed the post. I reached into his chest cavity and removed the metal clamp that once held the post to the links. Another one was found buried much deeper during his autopsy the next day.
Most of the vehicular accidents I investigated during my five years were alcohol related. In this case, the decedent’s BAC turned out to be well over .20. I did have some other vehicular scenes that were not alcohol related - five or six were with the elderly and/or infirm who died prior to the vehicle crashing. A few involved high speed carelessness with no chemical impairment. Then there were a few motorcycle fatalities (“donorcycles” as they are crudely referred to in the medical and forensic worlds). And still a few more were just strange, freak accidents.
These are so difficult for family and friends, often because they are preventable and sometimes because they are senseless. I lost a friend in middle school to an accident in which someone ran a stop sign and he was ejected. Another friend in high school died in a similar accident, only the driver of this one was the car he was riding in - he was also ejected.
I've heard police say on more than one occasion "I've never unbuckled a dead person."
I have. I'm still a pretty big proponent of seat belts. I also support wearing helmets on motorcycles, even though in every motorcycle fatality I investigated the decedent was wearing a helmet and still died of head injuries. Oftentimes, people are not as invincible as they'd like to think, and explaining this sad truth to people who are having a very tough time grasping that a loved one is dead is a delicate task. Asking a mother who speaks almost no English to identify her young daughter's bloody clothing because the body was too mangled from the accident to be viewable, then holding her upright as she screams and cries hysterically is not something I care to repeat.
The next chapter is about another vehicular accident; while it was not my scene, it rocked the very foundation of our office.