It has been 16 months and 13 days since I worked the most devastating and horrific multiple fatality accident of my career. As I sit at my desk typing this story, I don’t have to refer to my notes because the memories of that Sunday morning on April 1, 2012, at 0858 hours will be with me and many others who were involved and arrived to help with that tragic scene for the rest of our lives.
I remember the call from the Kansas Highway Patrol Central Dispatch that morning, and the details of what had happened in the accident were unclear. This can be very typical when something of this severity occurs due to multiple people calling in and reporting the accident. Dispatch informed me there were multiple victims involved in the accident and the Sheriff’s Department was requesting assistance from the Kansas Highway Patrol. I was 30 miles from the reported scene so my response would take some time even with responding emergency lights and siren.
As I was responding to the accident scene, dispatch continued to give updated information as to the specifics of the accident. I was 15 miles from the accident scene when I started observing multiple ambulances traveling northbound on the interstate lanes across from me. I recall thinking, “are all of those ambulances from the accident I’m responding too?” I counted five ambulances going by me and I assumed all of them were heading towards area hospitals. The sky that morning had a low ceiling which wouldn’t allow medical response helicopters to fly and assist with victim transport.
I arrived at the scene and observed multiple emergency response vehicles parked along the side of the highway. I had to park 200 yards from the scene and I grabbed the equipment I knew I would need. I contacted a Sheriff’s Deputy who I remember was holding a yellow notepad and I asked him what we had. The look on that young man’s eyes - I will never forget. He told me he really didn’t know but there were victims everywhere. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “I’m trying to document all of the victims as they are brought up from the scene and readied for transport.” I told him good job and to stay with it until he had identified everyone and we had an idea of how many victims were actually involved. This young Sheriff Deputy’s work that day was invaluable and assisted me with this investigation beyond what I can commend. I found out later this was his first major accident to work and he had only been in law enforcement for a short time. I often think about him and hope he was able to deal with this tragic event for him being so new to his chosen career.
I left the young Deputy’s side and started examining the horrific scene, and what I observed will never leave my mind. There were multiple victims lying in the area of this deep ravine that had a creek running through it. I remember looking at what I believed to be the vehicle, and it looked like an improvised explosive device had struck it. The main living quarters on this recreational vehicle was totally destroyed and nothing except a small couch remained on the bed of the vehicle. Some of the victims were children, which always makes it a very tough scene to deal with and work through. I remember talking to one victim who was a young teenage boy and he told me his little brother hadn’t made it, but he was going to try and help the rest of his family. This boy, who was called upon that day to deal with things most young men don’t, was a hero to me and I will never forget him for what he dealt with and assisted me with that tragic day.
The extent of this fatality accident on April 1, 2012, goes beyond one’s normal comprehension of a tragedy. The accident resulted in the loss of five human beings - three which were children and four of them were from the same family, and all were related. I have delivered several death notifications in my 24-year career, but never have I had to tell a surviving mother she has lost four children and one daughter-in-law. I recall the statement this mother asked me when I first looked at her in the hospital. The mother herself had life threatening injuries when she was transported from the scene and she was in stable condition when I spoke with her. She looked at me as I walked in the room and while starting to cry asked me, “how many of my babies didn’t make it?”
I have shed numerous tears with total strangers in my career and this is coming from a State Trooper who spent 20 years in tactical operations. I have always tried to find a positive in every tragic event I come in contact with so when I visit with the families I can give them hope and something good to think about when their minds are so filled with sorrow and sadness. On that day, I told the mother, “no one should have survived this horrific wreck but for some reason thirteen victims are still alive.” I hugged her and tried to comfort this total stranger for several minutes while trying to comprehend how she was going to deal with such great loss. Several of the surviving victims were her children and close friends so I told her she needed to get better for them. I found out later the husband and father to this family had passed away a short time back, and the family was still dealing with it, and now this accident entered all of their lives.
This accident involved a truck, which was considered a recreational vehicle, and it had living quarters in it and the truck was pulling a toy hauler trailer. The family was returning from an annual vacation trip which they have taken for several years to see friends and ride their four wheelers and motorcycles. A driving error that day resulted in a catastrophic accident which will remain with me and all of those who were involved most likely forever. That is why it is so important to remember a simple distraction inside a moving vehicle can produce a horrific accident scene which can cause the loss of precious human life.
I know for a fact all of us reading this article most likely can see or remember things we have done inside our vehicles while driving which took our attention away from the most important thing at that time, the operation of a motor vehicle. Please remember to take responsibility and drive with focus and care for those inside your vehicle and those away from your vehicle.
Since this accident, I have kept in touch with the families and especially with the mother and young teenage boy who had to be a young man that day. It has definitely helped me with my emotions and stress from that horrific day, and I believe it has helped the families in some way or another. I have often spoken with others and stated I can only hope my family would be able to work through the emotions and adversities that I know the families of this horrific accident have endured and encountered. I can say there is a special place in my heart for the families of this unforgettable day and I will remember all of you until the day I perish.
Dennis A. Shoemaker is a Master Trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol