'Please help me I'm dying' (2023)

An open letter from Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson.

I couldn’t understand why he had no shoes.

He was wearing a dark suit and socks but no shoes.

He was about 80 years of age.

He was dead.

It was dark and he had been crossing the road when he was hit by a car and thrown onto the footpath.

Later we would find out that he had been visiting his wife. She was in hospital. It was the first time they had been apart in their married life of over 50 years.

He had caught a train and was walking to their house from the railway station.

He must have misjudged the speed of the approaching car as he tried to cross the road near their house.

It was my first fatal and as is the case for most police it was early in my service as a young and inexperienced constable.

He had been wearing shoes. We found them when we were looking for the probable point of impact.

It was the shoes that showed us where his last moment was. They were on the roadway together.

He must have stopped and looked towards the headlights that were about to illuminate the end of his life.

The intense force of the impact had lifted him out of them and they were left there as silent witnesses.

Later I would see that again – pedestrians wearing loose fitting shoes which would remain on the road after their owners have been hit by cars. It was one of many learnings from my experience of fatals.

Fatal. The word used by police to describe an incident when one or more people die.

A single word to sum up the brutality of sudden, violent and sadly avoidable death. The carnage, the pain, the loss of existence and future, the shattering of plans, dreams and families.

The at-times horrific scenes of the dismembered or incinerated who only moments before were rich with the gift of life. The harshness on the senses – sights, sounds, touch and smells that can be sharply recalled years later in a triggered instant. All this distilled into one word – fatal.

Some years after the death of the elderly man, I was the detective in a country town.

Before the Police Service had a dedicated Forensic Crash Unit, local detectives investigated all fatals. There would often be only one or at most two police working at night. They would be the first on scene and I would be next.

At one of these call outs I arrived second at the scene. Three vehicles were involved. It was on an isolated highway, dark and wet and muddy.

The uniformed Constable who had been first there was young and new. Dripping wet, he told me what had happened. He had done well but I didn’t realize how well.

I asked him why he wasn’t wearing his raincoat. He told me how when he arrived the head of one of the victims, who had been decapitated in the impact, was in the middle of the road. He had wrapped it in his raincoat and placed it on the rear seat of the police car.

Five people died that night, all in one vehicle. Three generations of one family. It was the young Constable’s first fatal.

Two words that often accompany fatals are force and frustration.

The forces generated in a high speed crash, particularly head on with two vehicles at high speeds are enormous. One such fatal involved four young people. It was another country road, dark, late and lonely. All four were far from home. Again I was second on the scene.

The 1970s vintage car with metal bumper bars and hubcaps was forced into a U-shape by the impact of the two vehicles.

The hubcap from the rear wheel was fused to the corner of the front bumper bar. Two 17-year-old boys died instantly in this car.

The 21-year-old male driver of the other vehicle also died on impact. His girlfriend was trapped in the mangled wreckage.

The first officer there couldn’t get her out. She had said to him ‘Please help me I’m dying’. And she was. She must have felt her life slipping away.

He could only hold and comfort her but at least she wasn’t alone when she died. She was 16.

The sense of frustration of not being able to save her and of the needless, avoidable tragedy of the loss of those four young lives would remain forever branded in that officer’s mind and memory.

There is an accompaniment to every fatal. That is the advice to relatives or other loved ones. That terrible news – that brings with it a thousand questions and sudden sad and severe change forever – is in police parlance condensed into two words: death message.

Whilst many grieve and it cannot be said that some hurt more than others, in my experience there is no greater pain than that of a mother for her lost child. No words of mine can describe the extent and depth of that heart-torn sorrow.

Mothers also have a bond that defies logic. One of my death messages was to inform parents that their 12-year-old son, holidaying in the country with relatives, he had gone for a drive with a young male relative and they had both been killed.

It was the early morning hours when I got the job to deliver the death message. As I drove up the street I calculated the street number, drove well past it, turned the police car around and turned off the lights and engine, stopping near the house.

I walked up the drive and onto the steps and the door opened. It was his mother. She would later tell me that as the police car first drove past she woke, looked out of the window and knew that her son was gone.

She put on her dressing gown and went to the front door to be told what somehow her intrinsic maternal senses had already conveyed.

Most police have their own stories of fatals and death messages. Some time ago we stopped referring to fatals as accidents.

We now call them crashes. We don’t like calling them accidents because they are almost always avoidable.

How are they avoidable? What we call the fatal four is a good start. Don’t speed; don’t drink or use drugs and drive; don’t drive tired or fatigued and wear seatbelts.

They are the most important but there are other things also, including driving to the road and weather conditions which may be well below the speed limit; showing patience and courtesy to other road users; concentrating on your driving and having your vehicle in good shape mechanically.

And you could really help us by not just doing all of this yourself but by helping to influence as many others as you can to do the same.

We are your police service. The most important thing we do is to keep you safe from harm. The greatest risk to you from harm is on our roads.

So if we seen fanatically and intensely focused on this please try to understand why. We want you and your loved ones to be safe.

We don’t want you to be one of our fatals or death messages.


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