I started off in a small town in Oklahoma. The town was small enough that it didn’t have much crime to speak of, but we would get the occasional drunk fight or drug arrest just to keep things interesting. Due to the town being in a rural area, we would also get called to help the Oklahoma Highway Patrol with accidents on the highways that led into town.
One early morning, around 0500 hours, I got a call from our dispatch asking me to travel a few miles into the county to assist in a roll-over accident with unknown injuries. I was informed the vehicle was in the ditch, but not much more information was given as I can recall. I was also told that there were no Troopers in the area, and I could be alone for some time. As I mentioned earlier our town was small and didn’t warrant 24-hour coverage, so I jumped out of bed and headed out the door within a few minutes.
Police officers go on calls all the time where the questions can’t be answered until they arrive on the scene to assess the situation. This is especially true on calls such as this one. Questions like, “How many people are in the vehicle?” “How many of them are hurt?” or “How long will it take an ambulance to arrive to help me if needed?” Since I was a very inexperienced officer at this time, I’m sure all these questions and more were going through my mind.
When I got to the location of the accident, I noticed the ditches were overgrown with trees, briers and all sorts of undergrowth. After only a few minutes I noticed a vehicle stopped on the road, and I could see the taillights from the damaged vehicle near the bottom of the ditch. I also saw an unknown pedestrian frantically waving me over and pointing to the accident location. I got out of my patrol car and ran to the vehicle. It was at that time I noticed the driver, a young man, was laying on the ground several feet away from the crumpled-up pickup.
As I got closer to him, I saw he was unconscious and not breathing. I recently attended a first responder class and started CPR. While working on the young man I could tell that things were not looking good. He was unresponsive but from time to time would sit up and exhale deeply before laying back down only to stop breathing again. While this was happening, I never felt his pulse come back, and I continued on with the CPR.
While working on him I could smell the odor from the mixture of the gas from his vehicle along with the dirt that was scattered all around. I can still remember how tiring it was to give CPR for what seemed like 30 minutes before an ambulance arrived. I also remember my legs and arms cramping and being out of breath. I was relieved when I saw the ambulance pulling up, knowing I finally had some help.
Almost as soon as the paramedics got to us, I saw another person running down the embankment toward us. It was the driver’s father. As you can imagine he was extremely emotional after seeing his son and tried to get to him. In doing so he was interfering with the paramedics. This caused me to have to physically pull him away from his son in order to give the paramedics room to work. His dad threatened to hit me and even tried to punch me at one point, understandably so. It took me and a couple bystanders a few minutes to calm him down so he could think clearly.
While dealing with the dad, the paramedics were able to get the driver into the ambulance to transport him to the hospital in a neighboring town. After the ambulance left, the scene cleared out quickly and I remember looking at the pickup and thinking the damage was not that bad, and I believe he would have walked away if he had his seat belt on.
Due to the area being so small, word gets around, and it wasn’t long before I found out who the driver was. I also found out that his wife had just had a baby girl, and that he was on his way to work that morning. As far as why his father showed up, I found out they worked for the same company and one of their coworkers saw the accident and called him. He came there with the intention of checking on his son, but found that he was fighting for his life.
A few years ago, I was back in my hometown and discovered that the driver’s baby girl had grown into a beautiful young lady and recently had gone to prom. I was shown her prom photos and I couldn’t help but think about her dad, and how proud he would have been of his little girl. There was absolutely a void in those photos where he should have been.
Just about any officer who has been working the road long enough will have a similar story. These memories may fade and some of the details lost, but they don’t go away fully. From time to time something may trigger them, and you’re put right back there, in the moment surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells. Some officers may be reminded of a tragic accident after smelling the scent of a deployed airbag. For me, it’s the combination of the smell of gas and freshly disturbed dirt.
People get behind the wheel and don’t buckle up for one reason or another. But there is little doubt about it, if you ask that little girl who lost her dad early that morning, she would tell you there is no excuse not to wear it.
If you don’t want to wear it for yourself, wear it for your family members who love you, and who want you to be with them as they make memories. Memories like playing in their first baseball game, catching their first fish, graduating high school, or even going to their first prom.
Chris Head is the Deputy Chief with the Liberal Police Department