Looking at the face of death…Posted: September 23, 2011 Follow @JimPadar
I am several years into retirement and it’s a Tuesday, late November, 6:30 PM. A cold mist is falling, driven by a light southwest wind. I’m eastbound on Morse Avenue, approaching the T-intersection and stop sign at Central. It can be a long time before traffic breaks enough to pull out, but tonight there are no cars approaching from either direction.
I make an easy left turn to head north and immediately the scene before me does not compute. I slow instinctively. Immediately to my right is a van at the curb, lights and hazard lights on, engine running but no driver. A bundle of clothing lies in the curb lane about 25 yards ahead of the driverless van. In the center lane just past the clothing is a tennis shoe and another 25 yards north I see a beige late model mid-size sedan not moving, straddling the center line. In less than a second my brain finishes the first process of the scene. The bundle of clothing is in fact a body. The cop still left in me kicks in. I pull my car to the curb lane and pull into a protective position about ten feet short of the crumpled mass and hit my four-ways.
The body is now fully illuminated by my headlights. The unnatural, grotesque position lacks human form and belies a death pose. I look into her face and there is no doubt. A ghostly pallor, empty, unfocused eyes half open, expressionless face lying in a pool of blood that is no longer spreading. The heart has stopped pumping. That old feeling from years ago comes back… a slight quickening of the pulse and a small twist in my stomach. It’s been a long time since I looked into the face of death on the street. There’s nothing to be done for her.
I look further north and just ahead of the beige sedan is another body. A man lies on his side and as I kneel next to him he seems almost to be asleep. He’s motionless except for shallow breathing. There is no sign of blood.
“Don’t move him!” cries a voice from the west curb. “I’m a nurse, just leave him until help gets here.”
I look over to the curb and see a thirtyish woman squatting next to two more dazed persons sitting on the curb. Driver and passenger from the sedan I learn later.
“I’m a police officer.” I lie. It’s an easy lie because for the moment I am.
There’s a man next to me now talking to 911 telling them about this terrible scene in Niles. Wrong! There’s always been jurisdictional confusion along this stretch of street that borders the suburbs of Skokie and Lincolnwood and the City of Chicago. At this point the street centerline is the border between Chicago and Skokie, but from the skid marks starting on the east side of the street, the scene belongs to Skokie. It is more than two blocks to the Niles border.
I dial 911 on my cell and the signal hits a Chicago tower.
“Chicago Emergency, Roberts,” is the immediate answer. Five years ago I would have known Roberts personally, but tonight he’s just an anonymous call taker at the other end of the line.
“Connect me with Skokie Emergency!” The tone of my voice does not leave room for additional conversation but—if Chicago call taker Roberts is doing his job—he will monitor the conversation and dispatch Chicago first responders as backup. In just a few seconds Skokie answers.
“Skokie Police, Sergeant Rosen.” Mike Rosen and I are members of a law enforcement professional association and good friends. What is he doing answering 911 calls?
“Mike, this is Jim Padar. You’ve got a traffic accident with multiple injuries on Central just north of Morse!”
“Shit! Jim, are you sure it’s the Skokie side? We’re getting swamped with calls and we’re on the way, but I was hoping it would be Chicago’s”
“No such luck Mike and one more thing… it’s a fatal.”
I stand there for a moment looking for the second vehicle involved in the surrounding death and destruction. Why weren’t they wearing their seatbelts? Where is the other car? There are a growing number of spectators, but still no emergency vehicles on the scene.
“Officer!” shouts the nurse. “Could you check on my kids? They’re in the van back by Morse Avenue.”
I walk slowly back through the scene, around the car with front end damage and caved windshield and it starts to dawn on me. The windshield is caved inward towards the passenger compartment. This is a car versus pedestrian accident. I pass the solitary white gym shoe and see her again, brightly illuminated in my headlights. I stop for moment and turn off my headlights and leave the four-ways blinking. Standing on the curb a man with a small white dog on a leash stares, as if transfixed by death. The dog is sniffing curiously at the edge of the pool of blood and seems to me about ready to take a taste.
“Hey!” I yell. The man is startled and looks across the body at me. “Your dog!” He looks down and quickly pulls the leash back.
Just behind my car is the driverless van and inside are two children. A 12 year old in the front seat and a toddler in a rear car seat. They are both crying hysterically. I tap on the window and show her my star.
“Mom told me to keep the doors locked! She’s helping the people!” screams the older girl.
“That’s right. You keep the door locked. But there’s something I need you to do.” She stares at me for a moment. “I want you to turn around and talk to your sister. Don’t look out the front any more. Your sister needs you to talk to her.”She releases the seat belt and slowly turns, kneeling on the seat now facing to the rear and little sister stops crying almost immediately.
Back at Morse is a traffic nightmare. Northbound lanes have been stopped for some time and other northbound traffic starts pulling over into the southbound lanes to pass them, up to Morse where they can’t go any further. All four lanes are now filled with northbound traffic at a standstill. A siren and a blast horn sounds from much farther south. Most likely Chicago’s Fire Engine Company from Lehigh Avenue, but they’re never going to get through. I start to motion traffic westbound onto Morse. The first few cars look at my blue flannel shirt and khaki cargo pants and hesitate for a moment. Who the hell am I? A young man in a Pontiac Grand Am rolls down his window.
“I want to go north to Touhy.” he complains.
“There are bodies all over the road up there,” I say waving towards the north. He pales before my eyes and turns west on Morse. Hesitantly the first few cars behind him turn west on Morse and the following cars turn without hesitation flooding our quiet confusing neighborhood of curving streets with hundreds of cars. The Chicago Engine Company gets through followed by Chicago Police Beat car 1621. Roberts, the Chicago call taker, has done his job correctly. Other suburban emergency vehicles are arriving from the north. Lincolnwood and Skokie most likely. I would estimate response time to be about 10 minutes, but in actuality it was probably much shorter.
I walk back to the nurse and as I pass the front of my car I see Chicago firemen covering the fatal victim with a tarp. The nurse has been relieved by EMS personnel and she’s telling a Skokie police officer what she saw.
“I was driving right behind her. We were just driving along and they started to cross the street. They were shielding their faces from the rain. They never looked. They just walked into the street. It was wet, she tried to stop but…” she looked helplessly at the carnage around her.
I interrupt her, “Your kids are okay but I think they really need you as soon as you can break away from here.”
“Thank you, oh thank you so much!”
I start to walk back to my car contemplating how I’m going to extricate my vehicle from the mess at Morse when a young Skokie police officer starts addressing me, several decibels louder than he needs to. The look in his eyes tells me this gruesome scene has him rattled.
“What are you doing here? Get out of here! You have no business here!” Yellow crime scene tape has miraculously appeared from light pole to light pole and I am definitely on the wrong side.
Simultaneously I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see Sergeant Mike Rosen.
“Jim! Thanks for the call. We didn’t know what we had.” The Skokie patrolman glances at his sergeant and retreats back into the shadows.
“You’re welcome Mike. I just wanted to stay around long enough to make sure you guys didn’t try to push the bodies to the Chicago side.”
Mikes laughs, a hearty laugh… “Don’t think we haven’t done that.”
“I know Mike!” More laughter. Cops macabre humor. It’s the same all over.
Back at Morse the Skokie patrolman is all Mr. Manners now.
“Sorry sir, I’ll move my squad and help you get out of here.”
“Thanks… and officer…” he looks back at me expectantly.”You don’t need to apologize for doing your job.”
I reach my shopping destination about 20 minutes late, nose into a parking place and turn off the engine. How many people’s lives have changed in the past half hour? Those children in the van will never forget this fateful evening. The man and woman pedestrians; husband and wife? She is deceased. Will he recover? The driver and passenger in the striking vehicle; they will relive this moment far too many times in the coming months. How quickly our lives can change. The headlights on my car turn themselves off having grown impatient with me to exit the vehicle. I bow my head for a moment and pray for them all.
It had been many years since I had looked into the face of a violent street death. As a homicide detective I had more than my share of handling and examining deceased persons. Long ago I decided that whatever we are while alive stops being represented by our bodies at the moment of death. At death, what was our physical being is no longer relevant. From that instant forward the human body ceases to embody our spirit, our essence, our soul. A French theologian named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin perhaps said it best:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”