The scene of a fatal semi incident on Interstate 70 that I covered in July. The driver perished in a fire that resulted from the crash. (Banner Graphic/BRAND SELVIA)
Published in the 2022 edition of the Banner Graphic's Salute to Putnam County's First Responders.
I will sometimes think back on the fatal two-vehicle collision that occurred on State Road 42 last year. It is still one that is hard to reconcile, both as a reporter and as a “civilian.”
I remember how stock-still the place would’ve been if not for the cicadas. How I was thinking, “What the heck was that?” as I drove back home to Greencastle just wanting to have my lunch.
In a word, it was surreal.
I was content getting my information from Sheriff Scott Stockton and writing up the article. I wanted to treat it as another, though decidedly more serious, wreck.
Then I later saw the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook post of a photo I took of Cpl. Scott Ducker, wondering how, maybe why, he had to tell family their loved ones were dead. I broke down before I finally went to bed.
For me, “42” was a powerful juncture with the first responders who were there. Tragic as it was, this experience affirmed that though we all had a job to do, we were still people.
I’ve personally went out to three other fatals since. There is the one that occurred at the railroad bridge northeast of Greencastle a little more than a year ago. Then the double-fatality near Fincastle in May and the semi fire on Interstate 70 in July.
I hope this isn’t taken as dismissive, but covering fatal incidents has sort of become “business as usual.” A few of our firefighters, police officers and EMS personnel might back me up on this to a point.
I think it’s relatable to my and firefighters’ eagerness for a burn to come along. We don’t wish for it to happen, but we hate going without a “good” one. It’s part of the ethos, the commitment, of what we do.
You might characterize this, though, as having a morbid curiosity. But when it comes to wrecks and fires, I’m chasing firetrucks, so to speak. Putting it that way, I think there’s an honest thrill to being in the thick of it.
More to that curiosity, I recall a Greencastle firefighter telling me that, if he could help it, I would never see a burned body. But I did when I went on that semi fire.
As I told one of the state troopers who worked the scene, I wanted to confirm it for myself. I also did not have my camera as the deceased was removed from the wreckage. I have more integrity than that as a reporter.
It was a distinct feeling I got in my gut. It was a mix of unease and, perhaps, that morbid curiosity of seeing something like this for the first time.
However, I wasn’t unsettled by the individual’s condition such as it was. As I left and drove ahead on I-70, through Brazil and back to Greencastle, I just had my playlist going.
You go back, Jack, do it again, wheel turnin’ ‘round and ‘round/You go back, Jack, do it again
Ooh, loneliness will blind you/In between the wrong and the right/Coming right behind you/Swear I’m gonna find you one of these nights
Frank Zappa and the Mothers/Were at the best place around/But some stupid with a flare gun/Burned the place to the ground
You gotta slow down, sweet talkin’ woman/You’ve got me runnin’, you’ve got me searchin’
Here’s something that you’re never gonna forget/B-b-b-baby, you just ain’t seen n-n-n-nothin’ yet
What happened was just that.
I acted on my due diligence, my want, to be there and report on it. I remained objective, but still aware of that gut feeling. This is a prerogative that I don’t take for granted.
The emotional toll our first responders cope with working such incidents has never been lost on me. And it shouldn’t merely be acknowledged, but rather shared in good faith.
I took the day after 42 to process what I saw, and, naturally, got out a blog post about it. I’ve been open otherwise with some about how I felt. I quickly found out that the raw sadness I felt was valid.
No matter what your position or purpose is, I think that it takes some courage to lend an ear to someone. Being cripplingly shy as I can be, I haven’t done so in various circumstances.
For one’s reactions to such things to make sense, though, I believe you have to talk about them honestly. I hope that all of our first responders would absolutely back me up on that.
A mannerism I’ve seen with them is that it’s okay sometimes to smile, and even laugh, through it all. They have their own idiosyncratic sense of humor. I guess that I’m still trying to find mine.
We can never forget our basic humanity, but this is as we don’t lose sight of what we are called to do for the community. What it comes down to is that we get right back at it.