It was a crisp December night, four days after Christmas, 1977. You are a police officer on a normal patrol. The pavement is dry; just a few stars twinkle above. Then the radio in your car crackles, “Auto accident, Route SB9J Northbound.” Unit 8720, another car, responds.
You and your partner are talking about some courses you have taken. The talk comes back to the accident that unit 8720 is handling.
The radio tells you they have called for rescue units, an investigator and medical examiner. God, it’s a bad one.
Thoughts about the New Year’s party at the chief’s house arise. You’re looking forward to it.
The radio crackles again, “8720 to 604. 604 on. Can we meet at your station?”
You respond, “Ten four. ETA oh-five min.” You arrive at headquarters just ahead of the other patrol and set up for coffee. The sergeant and patrolman come in and their faces show strain.
You become tense, the look tells you: “It’s your family!” Quickly thoughts of kissing them and telling them you’ll be home at 10 p.m. race through your mind. Goddammit!
“How bad?” you ask.
The sergeant replies, “Bad.”
They take your gun and belt, and next thing you know you’re under the red lights enroute to the hospital. The feelings take over. God, don’t let my family be hurt. Hurry up! That car won’t pull over, dammit, get out of the way!
The bright lights of the hospital, the smell and activity only add to your anxiety. The room they bring you to is cold.
“How are they?” you ask.
The boys are in the emergency room; we’ll know more later. Your wife of thirteen years is dead, so is your eight-year-old daughter, the medical examiner tells you. Two beautiful girls, both in looks and character. In just a few moments part of your life is destroyed.
The parish priest, your uncle and brother-in-law arrive, everyone is compassionate, trying to ease your grief. Why? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? No one can answer.
Your thoughts go to the other driver, “If that s.o.b. is alive, I’ll fix him,” you holler. “I’ll kill him.”
Then you find out that he also died, but that does not ease your pain.
Mom – who’s with her? God, you want so to be with her!
A lone figure in blue appears and brings you coffee, a brother officer from the city who forever will be nameless. You see the pain in his eyes, “I’m sorry,” he says, and departs.
You are allowed to see your sons; the oldest, Michael, is twelve; Marc is six. Damn it, damn it, you say, the innocent shall suffer.
The nurses and interns work with dedication to soothe you.
Talk to the boys the priest says, and you do. Please, Mike and Marc, make it for me. Dear God, don’t take them too!
They take you back to the room down the hall. People in the hall look at you wondering. You wonder if they are “his” family.
Slowly time passes, and the boys are brought up to the intensive care unit on the sixth floor. You wait in the room next to it. You grab small bits of sleep. Only time will tell now.
Six a.m. and dawn is breaking. The uniform is damp with sweat, so your brother-in-law takes you home for clean clothes. As you enter the driveway the outside light is on, as is the one in the kitchen. The silence of your home is overpowering, the tears roll down your face. Exhaustion comes and you go up to sleep.
Later on you go back to the hospital. The doctors give Mike slim hopes of recovering, but Marc has a better chance.
So now comes the decision about Mike. Those people in New Jersey did it, and now you’ve got to. Papers are brought in and signed. Mike’s beautiful blue eyes go to the eye bank so maybe another will see the beauty he saw and enjoyed so much. His kidneys will go to someone who needs them.
You look in on the boys. Mike is pale. Marc’s color is pretty good despite the tubes, wires, and machines trying desperately to keep up his life’s functions.
Back to Mike’s bed, “Let him go to his mother and sister,” you say, “I love you, Mike.”
New Year’s Eve and the third part of your life is gone.
Father says mass on New Year’s Day at mom’s. He helps ease the burden that words can’t describe. Your wife, Barbara, had helped at Sunday School and had been involved in other activities at Sacred Heart Church. Your little princess, Karen, with her silly ways, had captured Father’s heart. Mike, the altar boy, had been liked by all he came in contact with. The three of them had done so much in their short lives. They were so involved – collecting for muscular dystrophy, swimming for cancer, Boy Scouting. Mike had worked hard for all his achievements. Karen had always been busy with her baton twirling, figure skating and Brownies. My Barbara, that beautiful person who was loved and liked by everyone.
These were three good people wasted. Your burning hatred is for that man; if he had killed himself only his family would have cared. “Curse him forever!” you hear yourself saying, “Suffer in hell all eternity, you bastard.”
Funeral arrangements, the wake, so many, many people. You try to hold together and watch out for mom. You try to remember all who come. Some sign the memorial book; some don’t.
After what seems a long, time, the people dwindle. It’s time to go.
The next morning you return to the funeral home. More people come and depart. Time for you to go, kiss them farewell, the tears burning down your cheeks.
Outside, many cars are lined up and move slowly with a police escort to the village church for Mass. All along the way the procession is escorted by police from the many towns you pass through. You wind your way into town where you see friends from your own department and the men from the State Police. They are all immaculate and precise in their uniforms.
The snow-covered church is ahead, inside, Father has left up the huge Christmas tree. It is decorated with home-made ornaments which the children made and it’s ablaze with hundreds of tiny white lights. Mass begins, and vaguely you hear the strains of “Amazing Grace.” The entire choir is here.
You cannot keep from looking at the three light blue coffins. “Why? In the name of God, why?”
Father invites all to receive communion, regardless of their religion. As people come up, you see a brother officer, more from other departments, Barbara’s employer, the children’s teachers. Boy Scouts, girls from Karen’s baton school, endless lines of empty faces. Then Mass is over. As you pass your home on the way to the cemetery you wonder what it will be like later.
Standing there the wind is crisp, sun shining. Father read from the book and blesses the coffins. “Dust to dust,” is what is heard faintly. Then one last look, walk away with heavy heart.
Every day for 30 days you go to the hospital with mom to see Marc, your youngest, fight for survival. For two weeks he’s in intensive care in a coma. Then he shows improvement every day. Soon he sits up and starts to eat a little solid food. He’s had a broken collar bone, lacerations and a severe concussion. You wonder what’s going on in his mind. How are we going to tell him? Later on mom tells Marc about Barbara, Mike and Karen. How she does it is beyond you, because you couldn’t.
Luckily Marc is doing pretty well in all areas, and he is soon released from the hospital. Mom had taken care of him, but now he wants to go home with you. You’ve got to get Barb’s purse at the State Police Station. Her paycheck is inside, uncashed, amid broken pieces of glass.
Soon after, a friend from the police department gives you a report. The other driver was drunk. They did a thorough investigation. You never liked a drinking driver. Now you hate them all. He had been on welfare. Our tax dollars had helped kill your family.
The hate flares up. He had money to drink but not to feed his family or provide for their other needs.
The tavern owners had served him for quite a while. They never should have let him drive in his condition. Very bitter feelings for these people well up inside you. Shortly after the accident, the tavern where this man was drinking catches fire and burns down. Ironic circumstances. A local newspaper carries the article and pictures with the headline, “Tragic Loss for Owners.” You have that newspaper’s coverage of your loss, pictures too. Full front-page, headlined “Head On Crash Kills 3.” The words “Tragic Loss” did not appear then.
Sometime in May 1978 you learn that a testimonial dinner had been held for the couple that owned the tavern. About $1,000 had been collected to help them reopen their bar. Only a few know I’ve instituted a lawsuit against them for serving that drunken driver.
No, they are not back in business. The State Beverage Control has their license.
Many months have gone by now, months of frustration and worry. Many trips to the hospital and doctors for my son’s check-ups. Finally one burden is eased as he is released from medical care. He shows no lasting physical or emotional problems, it is hoped he never will. The nights for you are not too restful. When sleep does come, you waken with the thoughts of the accident, reliving it all over again and again.
Shortly after your loss, another accident occurs not far from the same spot where ours took place. A young man is killed and he leaves a wife and child. The other driver, another drunk, survives. This person is arrested for driving while intoxicated and released without bail.
One, two adjournments and finally he is sentenced to loss of license to drive for one year, three years’ probation and to attend rehabilitation clinic.
It’s damn easy! Take a person’s life with a gun or knife and you’ll get at least a few years in jail. Kill him with a car while under the influence of alcohol and you walk away.
No wonder many police officers are disgusted and discouraged. The arrest, printing and photographing, the breath test all take lots of time and taxpayers’ money. And all that happens to the DWI driver is sentencing on reduced charges.
Sure, his insurance premium goes up. But so should his liability. Not that money will ease the pain of the loss, but maybe it will help those left behind to at least make an attempt to keep going on.
In most cases burial expenses cannot be met, in addition to hospital costs and the many others incurred with the loss of life. In our case, the drinks served have cost our family over $40,000 – a big price for $6-7 worth of liquor.
Such people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There is now a bill in the State Senate which would prevent them from being able to plead to reduced charges and there are a number of other bills pending in the Legislature which would toughen laws on drinking and driving. They should be passed.
And if you’re one of the people who takes that extra drink or two before getting behind the wheel of your car, please clip this article and keep it somewhere where you’ll see it everyday.
- Bill Dikant, Castleton-on-Hudson, NY