As a National Park Ranger you work in some of the most interesting and spectacular settings in our country. Most people believe that park rangers sleep dreaming about the vast vistas and beautiful sunsets they get to enjoy each day. The reality is quite different.
As a young park ranger I believed in the above image until I had to deal with my first dead body. Little did I know that this would be the first of many such situations I would have to face in my career. I ended up providing emergency care to victims and investigating deaths of people from auto and motorcycle crashes, gunshot wounds, drowning, drug overdoses, falls from cliff faces, and suicides. Several of these bodies floated in my dreams for years and still appear on occasion.
One such incident was in 1982 while working on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There was a young man in Galax, Virginia that was cruising with his 15 year old cousin in a Pontiac Trans Am. They met two teenage girls in a parking lot hangout and asked them to go for a ride in the impressive muscle car. They ended up on the Blue Ridge Parkway where the driver lost control of the car in a sharp curve at the state line with North Carolina going at speeds estimated of 80mph. The Trans Am went directly into a large oak tree killing the two girls and driver instantly. The bodies were torn and smashed to the point that no one could identify them.
The lone survivor was the cousin who was in the back seat awake and screaming as it took the Rescue Squad an hour to cut him from the wreckage. His body was cut wide open from one leg through his groin and down his other leg. EMT’s worked to stem the bleeding as the Jaws of Life worked to cut him from the mangled car.
The survivor did not even know the last names of the girls they had picked up. High school rings with initials on their lifeless fingers led local agency investigators to get the high school principal out of bed in an attempt to match the names in the year book for the upcoming graduating class. Once at the hospital I was able to get the survivor to tell me where they met the girls. In that parking lot was found a lone car registered to the parents of one of the girls picked out as a possible victim from the yearbook.
The Virginia State Police handled notifying the families of the tragedy relieving me of that tough duty. They found two next door neighbors home with every light on in the house. It was 3 a.m. and both families knew something was wrong.
At the hospital I finally had a few moments to start writing down some notes for the required investigative report. I had before me the official report form and I started to fill out the blank spaces. On these forms you placed all the information about the driver and passengers in neatly placed boxes outlined in black. To the right of the identity information the investigator had to check one of three boxes titled at the top of the column as; No Injury, Injury, or Fatality. By the time I had checked the third fatality box all the emotion and sense of loss of what I had been dealing with came upon me like a flood from a broken dam. My eyes began to swell up with moisture, my heart rate increased, and my writing hand began to tremble. I found an empty waiting room and sat for a few minutes to get myself back together. Eventually my supervisor found me and I cannot remember what he said or did, I wish I could, but he helped me to recover my composure and move on.
The part of this tragic event that stays with me to this day is the checking off of three young human lives on a government form in a small sterile hospital waiting room.
These are not scenes and visions that most new park rangers consider at the beginning of their career nor are they prepared to deal with. I thought that something was wrong with me for a long time since these topics were never discussed or dealt with by peers. You kept it inside and kept on going. You did not want others to know that you were not made of stone and macho enough to be a ranger. It took some time, and although I was not obsessed with these images it made it much easier to deal with once I knew others had the same experiences.
The crashed Trans Am as described in the story above. That is me in the upper left hand corner holding the flashlight. You can see EMS personnel trying to remove the lone survivor from the back seat.