Police work may be romanticized in the movies but in reality the violence is spontaneous and the training often insufficient. Discover the true nature of the job as retired officer Ian Thomas recounts the grisly tale of his first response to a drunk driving accident.
By Ian Thomas
Ian Thomas was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 15 years, after which, he worked for the Solicitor General of Canada and the Department of Justice.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness” –Joseph Conrad
It was a warm sunny afternoon in March, so I decided to walk from my rooming house to the office about four blocks away. In this business no two days are the same, and I was lucky that I didn’t know what I was going to deal with later that evening. I got to the office around three in the afternoon and settled in to do some paperwork before going out on patrol.
After checking over the police car I radioed Saskatoon subdivision headquarters and advised them that I was now in service and would be on patrol in the north area of my detachment. After leaving the office I headed north on #2 highway towards Davidson, a small farming community of about 1000 people located 18 miles north of Craik. I decided Davidson would be a good place to eat because they had a few restaurants that served half-decent food. I made my way to the Shell restaurant by the side of the highway. It was getting close to 7 P.M. when I stopped for dinner. About three hours later all hell would break loose and test the very fiber of my being.
After eating dinner I drove south on the highway and visited a few other communities in the area. Davidson was the most northern part of my detachment area, so now the patrol took me into the area’s southern reaches. It was about 10 P.M. and extremely dark on that prairie highway. The only light came from the moon, stars and the occasional set of headlights. The weather was clear, but the temperature was cold and crisp. The traffic that evening was extremely light. I was only a few miles north of a town called Findlater. Still going south on #2 highway I entered a zone where my radio didn’t work because I was out of range of the repeater tower for Saskatoon. If I was lucky I could get on the Regina tower, but that wasn’t guaranteed. I was about 200 yards behind the car ahead of me when I opened the window to get some fresh air. With so few cars on the highway I was beginning to feel a bit bored and my mind started to wander. But in a matter of seconds all that changed and I was jolted back into a sense of reality that seemed viscerally surreal.
I couldn’t believe my eyes: the northbound vehicle crossed into the southbound lane and smashed head-on into the car ahead of me. All I could see were headlights and tail lights spinning around in a cloud of dust. I said “oh shit” under my breath, and I hoped that nobody was injured. To make matters worse, chances were that I couldn’t contact my subdivision headquarters by radio. That meant I was probably on my own in the middle of nowhere. I picked up the radio and tried to call the dispatcher in Saskatoon, but I couldn’t trip the signal at the microwave tower. I tried Regina subdivision, and as luck would have it I was able to get their dispatcher on the radio. I told him to send me two tow trucks right away, and I would let him know how many ambulances I would need in a couple of minutes. After taking a quick body count I requested two ambulances.
This was my first motor vehicle accident. To top it off, I was completely on my own. I was really scared and nervous, but I came to realize that I would have to put all my fears behind me and execute my training. My mind was racing. I had to think about the procedures that I would follow, and the information needed for the mountain of paperwork that would inevitably follow. Regardless of the procedures, my first thoughts were of the people involved and making sure they were taken care of.
The accident happened in a flat area where you could see for miles in any direction, and neither of the vehicles involved were blocking traffic. That made it easier for me to secure the accident scene. A few rubberneckers passed, but they were not really interested in helping. They just wanted to see the blood and gore. I asked the few passing cars to keep moving, even though deep down inside I was crying out for someone to help me. I was more scared of them seeing me make a mistake than of having anyone help me. I suppose it was my pride, and I didn’t want to be seen as wanting for anything.
The accident involved a northbound 1967 Chevy ½ ton truck driven by Bill. Bill and his buddy Ken were in their mid 20’s. They had been on a two day bender drinking beer and whiskey at a party in Regina. The impact of the two vehicles resulted in Bill’s truck breaking into three parts, all of which came to rest in the east ditch of the highway. The truck’s box, rear wheels and front frame came to rest in an upright position, facing north in the ditch. The motor had been completely ripped out of the truck, and flew about 50 feet through the air where it rolled into an adjacent wheat field. Bill and Ken were still in the cab of the truck. They were both moaning in pain. Because of their moaning I went to the cab of the truck first. I noticed they were both so drunk that they hadn’t even realized what had happened. I told them to stay put and that an ambulance would be coming soon.
Although Bill and Ken were in pain, their injuries turned out to be minor. Ken had a broken leg and Bill suffered from some minor cuts and bruises. On the other hand, the people in the other car, a 1965 Pontiac, weren’t so lucky. The southbound car had spun completely around, ending up on the west shoulder of the highway facing slightly south-west. After checking on Bill and Ken I quickly went to the Pontiac. My heart started to pound and my whole body started to shake when I saw the two people in the front of the car. Nothing in my training had prepared me for this. There was no place I could hide, and I knew that I would have to face the situation and do what I had to do.
As I approached the Pontiac the driver’s door was open, and the driver was still behind the wheel. He was slumped over with his body hanging out of the car. The driver’s name was Pete; his wife’s name was Annie. Pete had fallen onto his left side with his head almost touching the ground. He was a tall, thin man in his late 60’s; his wife Annie was about the same age. She was a small, thin woman who had been sitting beside her husband in the passenger seat. Annie was already dead. She had died when her neck was snapped backwards as she was thrown forward under the dashboard of the car. Her body was like a crumpled mass of human flesh on the floor of the car. I wish I had gone to the Pontiac first, but I don’t think it would have made any difference.
Pete was still alive but obviously dying. Upon impact the left front window frame had been sheered into a sharp edge that took off the left side of Pete’s head. It was a grisly sight with Pete’s brain, nasal cavity and half of his jaw exposed. He was bleeding profusely from his head, throat, and internal organs. I could hear a gurgling in his chest, and I knew that I had to keep his breathing passage clear if he was going to have any chance of survival. The ambulances were at least an hour away. That was going to be too long for Pete. Tears ran down my eyes as I put Pete’s blood soaked head in my lap. I linked safety pins through his tongue, and pulled it clear of his throat to keep his breathing passage clear. I sponged away the blood that was flowing into his mouth from his chest. I was hoping against all odds that he would make it, but even if he did, the best plastic surgeon in the world would have a hard time putting him back together. A part of his skull was missing, along with his left eye and parts of his jaw.
I couldn’t keep my stomach down and I threw up at least twice that I can remember. The worst part was my difficulty in holding back my tears. I tried not to cry, but I couldn’t help myself. After about five minutes Pete stopped breathing and passed away in my arms. After checking his neck for a pulse, I put Pete’s lifeless body behind the wheel of his car. After taking two yellow blankets from the trunk of the patrol car I placed them over the bodies of Pete and Annie. I hoped that they had both passed over into a better world. On the other hand, Bill and Ken were still in the cab of the truck pissing and moaning about their injuries.
After Pete passed away I told Bill and Ken they could get into the back seat of the patrol car to stay warm until the ambulance arrived. I had very little sympathy or compassion for these two. The hurt and pain that I was experiencing for Pete and Annie slowly turned to anger, and it welled up inside of me. At that point I really didn’t give a shit what happened to Bill and Ken. Biased, yes I was! It was difficult for an 18 year old to find any objectivity in this situation. But as hard as it was, I did my best.
I was now free to finish taking measurements and photographs of the accident scene. My shirt, pants and winter parka were covered in blood, but I didn’t even realize it until after I returned to the office. When the ambulance arrived at the scene I arranged for Bill and Ken to be taken to the hospital in Craik, and for the other ambulance to take the bodies of Pete and Annie to the Regina General Hospital for a post mortem. Once I had finished taking the measurements and photographs, the tow trucks took the vehicles to Regina.
Doctor McCaw finished with Bill and Ken and released both of them a couple of hours later. I interviewed them and took statements in the early hours of the morning. I charged Bill with impaired driving and two counts of manslaughter. He was taken before a local justice of the peace and released on his own recognizance. Eventually, negotiations resulted in an agreement that Bill would plead guilty to one count of manslaughter and one count of impaired driving. As a result, Bill was sentenced to less than two years in a provincial jail and the loss of his driving license for one year. Was justice done? I leave that to you, because it wasn’t my job to say one way or the other. It was up to me to get Bill into court and present the evidence. If I’m able to present sufficient evidence for a conviction, then the luxury of guilt or innocence passes from me to the court.
I take some solace in the fact that Pete and Annie passed over together. For Annie it was quick, but Pete suffered a little longer. I often wonder if he was ever aware of what was happening. I don’t think so. Neither Bill nor Ken saw or had any real clue as to the carnage they created that night. Their drinking spree firmly instilled in me the evils of drinking and driving. From that day on I had absolutely no tolerance for anyone who drank alcohol and drove. The memories of that evening remain with me to this day. Every once in a while something will come along that will take me back to that evening on #2 highway, and my eyes will fill with tears as they are right now while writing this story.
Ian Thomas was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 15 years, after which, he worked for the Solicitor General of Canada and the Department of Justice. He received his BA from the University of Ottawa and his MA from Carleton University in Nepean, Ontario, Canada. You can read more at http://www.nomadoriginal.com.