Part four of a multi-part series on a particular experience I had. It may or may not prove to be interesting. But the writing of it was and was necessary, as well. See them all.
Note: I was a little conflicted about posting this essay. When I wrote it, I spared no details as that was necessary. Ultimately, I decided to post it but with some redactions because, while I needed to get it down to process what I had seen, there is no reason for you, dear reader, to also have to see it, even if in your imagination.
The small talk was a way to avoid the inevitable. Those around me included Melissa, the coroner investigator; first-responders; and highway workers. Most had already seen a lot, but this was going to be different. The small talk had concluded and Melissa got right to it.
“We’ve confirmed four victims so far. It is unclear if there are more, but the consensus is there are only four. Four too many, but at least not ten or twenty as it very possibly could have been.” And with that she turned and walked to the wreckage about 10 meters away.
I followed and consciously breathed; in out, in out. I looked down. I was not sure if my conscious breathing was necessary but I didn’t want to not breathe and then pass out in the sludge that was below my feet. There was a half inch of black goo everywhere. It was a mixture of flame retardant, water, gasoline, oil, and whatever other fluids came from a car that had been set on fire. Suddenly it occurred to me that there could be other fluids there, too. Fluids that were more organic and should never be in the middle of a road under an overpass. I steeled myself. In a moment, I would be seeing something I had never seen before close up and in person. In, out. In, out.
I took the camera from Riley.
“You’re exhausted, let me do this.” I looked at her, her face slack with fatigue, the glaze of exhaustion clear in her eyes. She didn’t resist when I pulled the strap over her head.
Melissa began immediately and I followed her lead. She was not bossy, not stern, just direct and to the point. All business but respectful of those with whom she was working and those who had lost their lives. Thanking anyone of whom she asked something, profusely and without fail.
The firefighters stood ready to assist in any way they could. They provided a human shield to onlookers nearby. Faces were now more somber and the small talk, comradeship, and smiles gone; put on hold for more serious matters. Suddenly it was all there for me in sharp focus. The tires had melted and the rims for those tires had partially melted as well so the car sat nearly on its undercarriage. […] And everything inside and around the car was black.
We started by taking “overalls”. Images that captured the whole scene all the way around the vehicle. I heard someone murmur that they thought it was a Lexus. But there was no real way to tell. As I made my way around the car, I looked for the VIN plate at the front of the dashboard but all that remained was a shiny slick of melted aluminum, now hardened. Three quarters of the way around the wreckage I paused and looked up. I could hear Melissa thanking the firefighters and asking if they’d step back just a pace or two to make room. But I only heard it in the background. I was suddenly rapt by the wheels of the semi nearby. They were half melted and there was pure metal peeking through. The shine was so bright it didn’t look real. Black everywhere but for these bright silvery slashes here and there, reflecting the sky, the black road distorted in the waves of the metal, the carnage, and the people standing around it. A silent witness.
I looked up, there were drips of the same shiny metal coming from the concrete of the overpass. I realized it was the bolts that had been used to secure the concrete forms for the bridge. The flames were so hot these had also liquefied.
I continued taking images as we moved in for the “medium” shots to get context of the finer details. Again, we circled the wrecked car, it’s twisted door posts and window pillars standing sentry around the person who once drove it. There was a shout from across the way.
“The press is back.”
The firefighters moved quickly and large blue tarps were unfurled. I handed the camera to Riley and grabbed a corner. The vultures didn’t need to see this. No one needed to see this. I held it up one end while a female police officer grabbed the other. We angled ourselves between the press on the hill and the car while Melissa and Riley continued to take images.
Melissa and Riley finished the “close up” images, getting whatever details were needed for review later. These would be used to determine what was in the car as it was before anything changed. The chief coroner, in a starched white shirt tucked around his belly, walked up with the body bag. The whiteness of his shirt about as out of place as anything could be and I found myself thinking this person wasn’t going to be doing any of the heavy lifting. And then on the heals of that, he’s probably earned it. He and another who’d walked up with him laid out the bag and unzipped it. In 10 minutes, we were almost finished with car number one. It felt longer. There was one more thing to do.
Melissa turned to the firefighters. “I need your help fellas,” the look on her face one of sorry about this, it’s not going to be fun.
They gathered at the driver’s door[…] I hated seeing that.
The fabric swatch of jeans had a wallet in the pocket and Melissa bent to pull it out, putting the jeans in the bag with the body. Melissa pulled out the driver’s license reading the name printed on it. A man. I glanced at Melissa. Her face was calm, almost serene, and I realized she’d been here before. Not here, but in this moment of discovery, pain, and death. She’d seen the finality and she’d seen other things. Probably worse things and probably a lot of them. Yet she wasn’t crying all the time nor dwelling on it so that her face showed the tightness of what lay inside her head. I found strength in her serenity. I didn’t ever want to get used to this but it was the job and part of that job was also to remain calm, perform the tasks at hand, and respect those who had perished; help to understand their final moments and begin that final journey back to their loved ones.
As I watched her read the license, I continued to be awed by her strength. Perhaps she’d gotten used to it, but perhaps she was of a special kind of person who had the fortitude to do this thing. This weird thing with which many are fascinated, but could never actually do. I took the camera back from Riley again and took [additional] images[…]the jeans, the wallet with the driver’s license held next to it. Melissa re-inserted the license, slipped the wallet into an evidence bag […] The bag was lifted and carried to the coroner’s truck. There were at least three more to do.
Photo by Fabian Kozdon