There is a sound you hear sometimes at the scene of a tragedy. A sound that freezes your blood as it moves up your spine and rips out your heart. Police and first responders reading this already know what I’m talking about. It’s the “wail” — the sound made by a family member upon learning of the sudden death of a loved one.
I was just getting started as a photographer the first time I heard that sound.
I was on the scene of a fatal accident in which a car was crushed under a large truck. I was talking to the officer working the wreck when I was startled by a sound that was something between the scream of a human and the howl of a wolf. I turned around to see a woman with her hands over her mouth, being led toward the wreck by another person. It seems that person had driven by and somehow recognized the car and had brought the woman, a relative, to the scene.
I turned back around to the officer. It seems everyone turns to the police officer when something like this happens. The officer’s shoulders slumped, there was a pained expression on his face and in a pleading voice he said, “Please don’t bring her over here.”
The officer then quickly walked over and helped the woman back to the car she had arrived in and proceeded to kneel by the door and comfort her while the lifesaving crew finished extricating the victim and the coroner took the body away.
That night was a revelation to me. The whole time that officer was patiently answering the questions of a green, overeager newspaper photographer just out of college, he was also working out in his head how to tell someone they had just lost a family member.
It was my first real look at the job done by police officers. I had covered a few things earlier but they had been minor, routine matters. This showed me that police work wasn’t like “Adam-12” on television. Things didn’t wrap up neatly in a half-hour, and then someone tells a joke and everyone goes home with a smile on their face. Sometimes, the officer goes home with a heavy heart.
A few years later, I was sent to a structure fire with a reporter. We arrived on the scene of a fully engulfed building and were informed there was a fatality.
Suddenly, from behind me I heard shouts of “Come back here” and “Look out, look out, look out.”
A man ran past me, heading for the burning building, while being chased by a police officer and a member of the lifesaving crew. Like a running back trying to score against a goal line defense, the man knocked down the first firefighter who tried to stop him and was attempting to push through the others in his way when a police officer caught him from behind, placed him in a full nelson wrestling hold and pulled him back from the fire.
The man made one last plea to God for help. Then came that sad, chilling, wail and all the fight went out of him. The officer released his wrestling hold and placed his hands on the man’s shoulder, gently leading him to the steps of a nearby house, where the two sat as the officer attempted to console the sobbing man and stayed with him until the police chaplain and the Red Cross arrived.
The reporter with me went back to the car and cried. To this day, I still get tears in my eyes when I remember that wail and seeing that officer gently switch from a wrestling hold to a hand on the shoulder, doing his best to help a grieving man who just lost his family.
The sound of the wail and the actions of these two officers made a permanent impression on me. The next time you see the photo of the officer with his knee on the neck of the man, I ask that you remember these two officers that did what they could to bring aid and comfort to people who were suffering the saddest moment of their lives.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]