A DEFINING MOMENT. The previous eleven instalments have had a jocular feel to them, last weeks blog showed the grim side of police life. Todays is no exception. No matter what you do or who you are, we all have defining moments. I’m opening up today, letting my deeper feelings out and sharing a defining moment. We are all human and most of us feel, most of the time. What happens when you stop feeling? When your life is such that if you let someone in, you fear that any show of emotion will bring you down. It’s then you know that you need help. Seeing a shrink as a copper in my time would sound the death knell for your career. You wouldn’t be tossed out but you would end up in some back office job. Now there are trauma counsellors to help you through.
One of three events in Vietnam and the resulting PTSD, which took around 10 years to raise its ugly head came to the fore after the following incident. It set in motion the eventual downfall of my police career. The following is day one of a horror week. I will talk about the remainder of it in next weeks post.
A Monday morning dawned like any other and if I’d have known what was coming I would’ve stayed in bed. Cedric had gone on leave and I returned to the country station to work with Bob. We tossed a coin when I arrived at the office to see who took the first job. Bob won and the first call of the day came in, a light plane crash. Phew, you can have that Bob I thought and all the bloody paper work. We arrived at the potato farm to find a crop dusting plane with its nose buried deep in the rich, dark soil. The pilot survived, ending up we found out later, with 28 breaks to both legs. That sorted the rest of our work day, interview witnesses, go to hospital and interview the pilot, have the plane checked. As I said, paperwork. I was living at the local pub and after knock off time went back to my little room. A pub dinner and a quiet beer was disturbed by a phone call, “Get the car we’ve got a vehicle on fire.”
It wasn’t hard to miss, fire engines, an ambulances, SES and every local within a 10 klm radius. We’d been contacted last. The road connected two major highways and had been recently updated. Imagine the scene with only the power pole and the car. A long dark road stretching into the night and a small farmhouse to the right. The car, a V8 Valiant sedan had come to rest, rear first into the power pole and was still on fire. A set of skid marks highlighted by evidence of a burst tyre, stretched for over a 150 metres. Several broken power lines cracked and danced as they touched the car, sending huge sparks into the night sky.
The sub station that served the area was located kilometres away and the firefighters, rightly so, couldn’t put water on the fire as the high voltage lines were still alive. Two men were laid out on the gravel verge, the driver and front seat passenger. The passenger survived and the driver died later in hospital. Until the fire was put out I had very little to do, Bob took a statement off the man who pulled the two men out. (The farmer received a bravery award. Barefooted he ran through the power lines and burning fuel to rescue them. A sad post script, he was knocked off his bike and killed in the exact spot 3 years later.)
The back story to this event reads like a novel, the driver, his brother and a friend had pulled off an extremely large heist of frozen food a few weeks earlier from the wharves. Their time had been taken up selling the proceeds to pubs and clubs wherever they could. This then entailed drinking some of the profits and buying greyhound dogs to race. Being of the criminal persuasion they then bought huge amounts of medication to dope said greyhounds. On this night they were heading back to a local pub to buy some fresh farm produce,(must have got sick of frozen). The driver had a young son who had come from interstate to spend the holidays with him and his defacto wife.
The power was switched off, the firemen did their thing and the injured were taken to hospital. The farmer informed me that he thought he saw two people in the rear of the car. I approached the wreck but due to the heat coming from it couldn’t get too close. All that I could see by torchlight was a black lump. I’d checked the driver’s ID and made my way to his address, a caravan park about 10 klm’s away. Up until that time I was an easy-going sort of bloke and thought I’d seen it all, no – I was to be surprised.
She opened the caravan door and looked down on me, “What the bloody hell do you want?” She wore shorts three sizes too small an open blouse and held a bottle of Jack in one hand, and a cigarette in another. I asked if so and so lived there, showed her his licence and queried as to the number of people in the car. “Yeah that’s him, four if you count that effing kid of his.”
If she’d of hit me I would have understood, or maybe screamed, even fell on the floor but no. Her next question, “You’ve got his licence, where’s his wallet? It’s got two thousand dollars in it.” His licence had been in his shirt pocket and I ask, “So, where did he keep his wallet?” Taking another swig she glared at me, “On the dashboard, where else.” No amount of explaining would convince her that the car was presently smouldering away and that anything in it was now destroyed. Back at the scene I felt weary, the Detectives had arrived and I helped with mapping out the crash site. The night dragged on, the firemen and SES left. Bob returned to the station, the gawkers had left and the undertaker and myself sat by the slowly cooling wreck. The only consolation, it was a lovely evening. By 2 a.m the car, now a burnt out metal hulk had cooled enough so we could remove the victims. The undertaker brought a canvas stretcher over, a garden rake and a shovel.
A fireman had left me a crow bar to open the door, after some prising it opened with a creak. I’d never seen real burnt human remains before, only what you see on war documentaries. Burnt crewman hanging out of wrecked tanks on a battlefield, this was worse. Fire does terrible things to the body. Where flesh is close to the bone it sears it away, where it’s thicker it cooks. I had to go halfway in with the rake and find somewhere to dig it into the bodies to be able to haul them out.
With the power being restored to the area, the streetlight on the power pole, (the only light for about a kilometre) shone down on us. Putting into stark relief the charred remains on the stretcher. When hot flesh meets cool night air it seperates. The man and boy were entwined in an almost obscene embrace in death. They fell apart as we shifted them into the middle of the stretcher. I won’t go into detail here, only to say it took me four months before I could eat meat of any kind.
The night hadn’t finished, Bob sent out the tow truck and when the vehicle had gone we took the remains to the Hospital, so a doctor could confirm death. I’d received some information about the identity of the man in the back, he had a glass eye. I told the doctor this and he nipped back inside and came out with a long probe. Quite excited and going on about what lovely specimens they were, he stuck it into the eye socket and ground it around on the shattered glass, I came close to heaving then. After escorting the bodies to the morgue in Brisbane I finally fell into bed at 6 a.m.
Bob, God bless him attended the post-mortem, I had to contend with the driver’s wife. He’d died through the night and she came to the police station at 9 a.m. I had the receptionist there, about six people after different things and this harpie abusing me. No amount of explaining would convince her that I knew nothing about the wallet and money. She’d been and looked at the car and at least thirty people were at the scene before Bob and I got there. How I kept my cool I’ll never know, she accused me of stealing the money and actually hired a solicitor later to lodge a complaint.
I never found out if the haul of frozen food was ever located. The front seat passenger survived. The driver was blood tested before he died and he was three and a half times over the limit. The outcome of the investigation showed that the car blew a tyre while being driven in excess of 140 kilometres an hour. Skidded up the wrong side of the road, hit the embankment, flipped over and sailed rear first into the pole, five metres off the ground. The fuel tank ruptured and falling power lines ignited the fuel. I had no feelings whatsoever for the two men who perished. The pathologist found that the boy didn’t die as a result of the impact but from being burnt to death. The man in the back had fallen over on top of him. The boy’s struggles were what the rescuer saw while he was pulling the others out. I found out much later that the boy was forced to go with his father in the car, he wanted to stay behind and watch television.
A pervasive sadness fills me as I write this. I still cannot comprehend the feelings and motives of some people. That money is a prime consideration when told of a loved one’s death. Or that the death of a child brings nothing but scorn. Now as the old saying goes, “This wasn’t my first rodeo.” Death had presented itself a few times prior to this. I think though that fire, the primal element that it is ignites something in us. It fascinates and repels, serves and enslaves us and shows us that we have no real control over it – or life. A final word, when bravery is spoken about I think of a tall, lanky barefooted farmer. Running through the darkness and into a burning wreck, not once but twice to remove the injured. With thick steel cables carrying tens of thousands of volts leaping and snapping around him and the car. That dear readers was a brave man.
PS. If you are wondering what an impact at 140 klm hour can do, the contents of the car’s boot (trunk for my US readers) syringes, doggy dope and other paraphernalia was spread around a two hundred metre radius