Compiled by Kotie Geldenhuys
Selected photos from Centrum Guardian Project
Road crash scenes do not make for a picture to remember. In fact, they often make for the worst of scenes when people, covered in blood are lying on the tar road, while others are still trapped in a vehicle screaming for help. Too often these crashes are so severe that the victims have been mutilated beyond recognition. Imagine trying to help the survivors, while their family is hysterically begging the first responders to save their own and their loved ones’ lives. Imagine having to tell a parent that there was nothing that could be done to save their child and witnessing families mourning someone they loved. These are the realities which traffic law enforcement officers, police officials, paramedics and members of the fire brigade who respond to road crash scenes have to deal with regularly.
It can be very hard for emergency responders to cope with fatal road crashes, even though they have been trained to deal with them. A former commander of the Accident Combating Sub-Section at SAPS Head Office, Supt Rob Askew once told me:
“I have faced death on a few occasions, I’ve walked in the blood of victims of road crashes, I’ve given heart-breaking first aid, I’ve seen people die, I’ve conveyed death messages to the loved ones of deceased persons, and I’ve seen policemen ‘crack’.” These words will stay with me forever, as will the story of another former SAPS crash scene investigator from KwaZulu-Natal. He once told me that he had worked at fatal crash scenes for years and witnessed many maimed and burned bodies at a road crash scene, but that there is one scene which shook his whole world. That was a crash where a baby died. As he lifted the body of the baby from the baby seat the milk was running out of the baby’s mouth. The baby had no bruises and there was no blood, it looked as if the baby was sleeping. Another investigator told me about a crash where the driver’s brain was found on the back seat of the vehicle and how that scene affected him. Over a lifetime of service, many first responders can recount times when it was difficult to separate the personal from the professional.
Arriving at crash scenes like these is never easy but, first responders have to put on a professional and brave face. Yet first responders are human too and eventually, they too can only take so much of having witnessed such scenes. Stress not only comes from being at a fatal crash scene, but also from the emotional toll of informing a family about the death of a loved one. The stress these first responders face, is not only experienced in the short-term, but often results in health problems in the long run.