Looking at the face of death…

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.”

“Double shit!”

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.”


40 Comments on “Looking at the face of death…”

  1. Dave says:

    Jim, you never fail to touch the intellect and the heart at the same time. The quote from Teilhard de Chardin is so incredibly apt for the story, and beyond. You did, however, refer to yourself as a homicide detective, and NOT a homicide investigator, which makes you classic, but less current with new CPD philosophy. Don’t look at me, you’re the one that told me! I should be asleep now, but I know I will think about your story for quite some time before I fall asleep. I can picture it and feel the cold mist on my face. For some reason my focus keeps falling on McDonalds, up the street to the North, on Touhy. What a gift you have.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Dave your your comments, always appreciated.

      As to Detective versus Investigator: The Department officially changed the designation from Detective to Investigator in late 1979. At some point in time, they drifted back to “Detective,” I am not sure exactly when. (Anybody out there have that bit of trivia?) At any rate, the correct term for the last several years is once again “Detective.”

      • John says:

        By about ’81,’82 it was changed back to Detective. In about ’91, Youth Officers were given the designation of “Investigator.” It was even on their new stars. But with this new Supt. we have, he has changed “Detective Division” to “Detective Bureau,” because “that’s how it is in New York.”

      • jimpadar says:

        I took the detective exam sometime in ’68 or ’69 and placed very well. The IACP at the time was doing a study of the Chicago Police Department. I heard a rumor (yes we had a rumor mill way back then) from a highly placed source that the IACP was recommending that the department do away with detectives—and further that the department was going to implement the recommendation. I was gnashing my teeth and crying in my beer and sure enough it happened. The recommendation was that the title be changed from detective to investigator. And so it was. I was promoted to “investigator” in January 1970. I often wonder how much the city paid for that study. I am not sure when the title gravitated back to detective… probably the late 70’s. Fun and games. Smoke and mirrors. Some things never change.

  2. Silvia says:

    Thanks for another poignant story!

  3. Once a cop. Always a cop.

  4. Jennifer K. Stuart says:

    Morning Jim. Reading your blog is the first thing I’ve done today, even before coffee. I don’t think I’ll need the coffee now. Keep up the good work, my fellow writer’s workshop friend. Best, Jennifer

  5. Cindy says:

    Reporter of facts……and philosopher with a caring heart. Lovely thoughts about a grim experience.

  6. Patrick says:

    Great writing, as usual. Is the book coming soon?

  7. Roy Sebastian says:

    Very good writting… Keep up the good work….

  8. Chris Karney says:

    I was there too, two elderly Russian immigrants trying to cross a very busy road, in the dark, at rush hour. I’m surprised there aren’t more hits there. I guess it was a good thing they died instantly,it was a very gruesome scene.

  9. jimpadar says:

    My information was that they were not related—just neighbors out for a walk.

  10. Dan Cirignani says:

    I too had ‘the face of death” look me in the face. As a new policeman ,as expected I had to work a Christmas morning,at 8:30 AM it was cold and blustry and had just started my tour,I was sitting at a stop light at Elston and Foster when a large explosion blew out the doors and windows of a gas station..three figures came running out the the station…all were on fire from head to toe. I called an emergency on the radio and I pulled up on the ramp…by the time it took me to pull up there two of the men were gone with every stitch of clothing burned off of them,the third man turned out to be a sixteen year old boy helping in the gas station,they had delivered some bad gas with water in it and were doing their customers a favor by working on Christmas day and were draining the gas tanks and refilling them with enough fuel to get them through the day. Unfortuantely the gas was flowing to the front of the bay and there was a hot water heater with an open pilot light underneath that ignited the fumes. The sixteen year old lived for 10 more days,he was burned over 85% of his body ..he expired while at the county hospital burn unit. It was one my most saddest days on the police department when I had to go to the inquest with his family there ,they thanked me for trying…that was a day I was ‘this’ close to tears…that was 45 years ago….and I still remember…I remember the tears!!!

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Dan for adding your story to “Tales From the Street.” A Christmas Day tour of duty was never fun, and family sometimes wonders why can’t “get into the spirit” when we come home,

  11. Kent says:

    Hi Jim, and thanks for another interesting remembrance of your career and life. When you mentioned “How many people’s lives have changed in the past half hour”, it sort of flipped a switch in me. It took me back to a midnight shift on patrol, back in the early 80’s in 018.

    I had just turned off of Fullerton Ave onto Cannon Drive and was checking on the cars parked there outside of the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was a nightly routine and mundane task. That night was no exception, as we crept along towards the end of Cannon Drive at the south end of the zoo. It was a crisp, dark and quiet autumn night. My recruit and I thought we saw a small flickering light of some sort ahead of us. As we proceeded, we realized that the wind was causing some grass and brush to sway in front of the glowing amber colored light of a motorcycle that was lying on the ground. Nice bike! Big, shiny and brand new, with a temp plate. We’re thinkin’ it’s hot.

    There’s no one around anywhere. We ran the plate and VIN and, of course, it’s not on file. About 30 feet away, and in nearly total darkness, I notice a parking meter bent over at a severe angle. As I head over to check on that, I noticed a “pile” in the bushes another 25 feet beyond the meter. On approach, the “pile” took on human dimensions. Checking for a pulse, he’s still alive! CFD transports him to Grant ER in critical condition. He really didn’t stand a chance, though, after his face hit the parking meter, at, lord knows, what speed. Turns out it’s the young mans 21st birthday. He had bought himself the motorcycle the day before, as a well earned gift. He had spent the last year as the sole support and care-giver of his mother, whom he buried earlier in the week after she succumbed to brain cancer. The Grant ER waiting room filled with tearfully hysterical family members… it was so sad. This is also where it struck me… “How many people’s lives have changed in the past half hour”… ?

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for adding your story Kent. Police officers are both cursed and sometimes blessed by seeing more of “real life” in a year than others will see in an entire lifetime. We are in a unique position in our society, a place that others will never quite grasp. We need to tell our stories, just as you have done. Thanks again!

  12. Dan Cirignani says:

    I don’t personally know you Kent but being a policeman many people think you become hardened to things like this…I can sadly say…you don’t.

  13. Pat Cronin says:

    I completely forgot about this story and it took me a few lines for it to sink in. I also completely enjoyed it the second time around. And yes, I think a book is a not-so-distant possibilty. My two cents…

  14. Ellen Davidson says:

    it’s 2:15 am and I’m riveted by this account. Whether it’s fiction or not doesn’t matter. It’s all real to me. Just short of the last quintile of my life I read and think about the “subject” of death. The last line jumps at me. This French theologian is becoming more accessible. 40 years ago his thoughts were cool but abstruse. I am going to re-read this tomorrow.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Ellen, I am glad you enjoyed the read. All of the stories on this blog are true or very closely based upon true experiences of mine. Unfortunately I don’t have a creative bone in my body—I could never make this stuff up. 🙂

      “Quintile.” I like that word… it sent me to the dictionary. I always thought it was sobering to say that I had more of my life behind me than before me. Now you come along with this quintile business and I discover that I am definitely in the last quinitile of my life. Very sobering indeed! 😦

  15. Rich Rostrom says:

    I was wondering about the jurisdiction question when you mentioned the location. I’m not surprised the civilians were confused.

    On the deeper questions.

    I don’t know how you guys stand it: continually dealing with pain, tragedy, death.

    And you – retired, free of that terrible load… and the moment trouble came, you stepped up to help.

    I’m “Just A Civilian”, but I salute you.

    I also salute you as a writer. You may not be creative enough to “invent” stories, but to tell them this well requires creativitiy.

    • jimpadar says:

      Hi Rich,

      Thanks for your comment and observations. It may seem strange, but I very seldom thought of the job as being a terrible load. Overall, it is very rewarding work and if you can keep your head on straight, as most of us do, it becomes a very rewarding career. No doubt it takes a certain undefined personality to be a successful officer. It is not a job for everyone.

  16. Dan says:

    Depending on the year, that young Skokie copper could be my brother. I love the stories. I am not a cop and my brother does not speak much about what he sees on the job. Thank you for making me understand the world he and all other officers live in.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks for your comment Dan. I wrote this story a few years back but unfortunately I do not recall the specific year of the incident. I found that as time passes, some of the stories begin to surface. I have a son on the job now and I hear very little regarding street activities from him, but I try to understand and not pry. I am glad I was able to give you a glimpse into the inner sanctum of law enforcement..

  17. Joanna says:

    I hesitate to use the word lovely with this kind of story, but that is just what it is with the way you tell it and the emotions you present. As to your quote, I am reading a book called “The Shack” it’s a little hard read at first because of the beginning storyline, yet it deals with your quote in at first a somewhat hokey way then leads to and effects one oddly clear by mid way and basically supports that quote and even explains it a bit.

    • jimpadar says:

      Thanks Joanna, I read “The Shack” by William P. Young a few years back. In fact, I read it twice, and now that you mention it I just may read it again. Although some have reacted negatively to the book, I found it very moving. To quote a reviewer, “…the book is a parable, not a doctrinal treatise.” Read in that context, I feel there can be a very meaningful message inside the cover. Thanks for you comment and observation.

  18. Brennan says:

    Wow, very powerful, and sort of a wake up call. The way you present these stories makes me feel like I’m right there with you. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Matthew Brown says:

    A very moving story that I totally relate to. Aside from my experiences in the suburbs and then District law, I spent five years on Lake Shore Drive with the Traffic Section before being promoted to Sergeant. After a couple of years in 021 I was back in Traffic, but in MAIU where I spent three years on midnights. I’ve seen more than my share of death and destruction at the hands of motor vehicles. Bullets and knives don’t scare me, cars do. They are an equal opportunity mechanism that can kill anyone, anywhere.

    I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog. I’ll look forward to future postings. Keep up the good work.

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