Trauma… When It Comes Knocking At Your Door


Steven Smith – Retired Assistant Chief Of Police

As a 1st responder we experience the worst of humanity, see people at their worst and lowest times. We tend to protect ourselves from all of this by just stowing it away, not dealing with it, filing it away. Well I did that and after I retired those experiences came knocking. Sometimes they came all at once, other times one at a time. I’m not sure which way was worse being overwhelmed by the horde of experiences or remembering every detail from them as they came in one by one.

I’m going to tell you about the ones that have come back to me recently to deal with. Not sure why but these are all focused on car wrecks. For whatever reason these are the ones that are requiring me to process and deal with now what I didn’t then. Some of these are the from almost 20 years ago and I’m also doing my best to protect the families that were involved, as I’m sure their pain is still as bad today as it was when they endured these tragedies. So here it goes, please excuse my typos as these are not easy to talk about.

I was 1st on scene of a car wreck. It was on a 4 lane with a center turn lane. 50 mph speed limit. A young woman pulled out from a side street and just barely clipped a passing car. Barely as in it broke her signal light lens but the bulb still worked. That contact was enough to cause the car that she hit to veer and slide into oncoming traffic. As the car veered it went on to two wheels and was going to to flip until went into oncoming traffic at 90 degree angle. With the driver side facing oncoming traffic. His window was down when he was hit in the drivers side door, while on two wheels. His head impacted the car hood of the vehicle that t boned him. When I got to him he was still breathing. I can remember his nose bleeding but no other visible injuries. We stabilized him as best we could through he wreckage. I can still remember the sounds as his body was struggling to breathe and function. I say that because the after reading the coroners report later his brain was basically destroyed from the impact. For some reason that sound has always weighed on me. The ambulance showed up and started working him, so I got out of their way and started processing the scene. I looked at the other vehicle and the imprint of his face was imprinted on the hood. I’ve never scene that before or since. I then recognized his vehicle. I had pulled him over a few days prior for a broken tail light.

We did our measurements collected everyone’s info, I tracked down the father of the deceased. He had already found out. Turns out that the girl that tapped the deceased’s car knew him. They were friends. What I thought would be the hard part was the easiest, notifying the family. The hard part was notifying the girl who hit him. I made the mistake when she asked who she hit of saying his name was. She dropped the phone and the most sorrowful waling I’ve ever heard came across the line. I still hear it sometimes. Luckily here family was there with her and picked up the phone. I explained the situation. After a few days she collected herself and came to the station to give a statement. The day before she came in his father called me. He asked me what my opinion was of the accident. I told him she made a mistake which ultimately lead to the death of his son. He told me that he had accidentally done the same thing that day. He said he was distracted, which was completely understandable considering his loss, the only difference was that everything worked out this time. He went on to say that we have all made that mistake while driving and that this was a terrible accident and she be just left at that. He asked if I planned on charging her, and I was planning on it. He asked me not to. When I asked why, he said that his son wouldn’t have wanted this and neither does he. For something that was a pure accident, and that we’ve all done it, she shouldn’t have her life ruined. I told him I would talk to the prosecutor and go with that decision. The prosecutor was floored and said to let go based on the fathers request.

I was working an extra detail when the call came in. Car vs house. My Sgt and I are the 1st on scene. I see an elderly women slumped over the steering wheel of a mangled hatchback. I open the driver’s side door. As I do I feel something hit me in the shins and feet. I didn’t really pay attention. I was busy trying to find a pulse or some sign of life. There was none. I look down and see her severed leg had fallen out of the vehicle onto me. There was almost no blood. She wasn’t bleeding. Turns out she had a massive coronary event. There was a faint moan from the passenger side. There was someone else in the car, but there was so much stuff in the car it had literally buried another elderly female in the passenger side. The car was completely mangled on the passenger side and wedged into the foundation of the house, so getting to her was difficult to say the least. As we are moving debris and trying to get the door open she comes to and starts screaming in agony. We are doing everything  we can to get to her, to no avail. The fire department gets there. They start cutting trying to get the door open. While they are doing that we were able to peal the windshield out of the car. I climbed on the hood and reached in to get her hand so she could at least know we were trying. She was crying, while she held my hand. Until she went silent.

The worst wreck

Do youu know what the worst thing that you could see on bad wreck is, besides it being a loved one? I can tell you what it is. I’m still not at peace with this one enough to truly talk about it without braking down. It’s when you roll up on scene and find a car seat laying face down in the road from a rollover vehicle. Its praying to God that it is empty, that the baby is home sleeping in its crib safe and sound, only to find that its not. Then to cradle the baby as you beg for help to get there as fast as it can, event thought you can see that its too late and there is nothing you or anyone else can do.

This is what we see all too often and what we store away hoping to never have to deal with. Hoping that we can leave it in the past, praying that after you finish the report, that it’s over. That after you close the case, that you have closed that sight, sound, or smell out of your mind. You hope, pray, strive, and sometimes beg for this to be the end of it, but it isn’t. One day it will come calling and we have to deal with it.

So what do you do when this comes knocking demanding it’s due? At 1st I tried to battle it all my own. That didn’t work. So I had to take steps to get help, to get my head in the right place. Now I’m still dealing with these calls that come knocking. I still have bad days with them. The difference for me now is I’m not alone in the battle.

Don’t fight the battle alone, make the call, make the change, make the difference.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

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Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008