Picking Up The Pieces

Picking Up The Pieces

Frequently, the results of car crashes that Sgt. E.J. Wimberly investigates are permanent.

Whether it's a lost limb, crippling crash or fatality, the hardest part of Wimberly's job as a member of the Fairfax County Police Crash Reconstruction Unit (CRU) is breaking the news to the family. Often, a day that starts out like every other day takes an unexpected turn for the worse.

"What we're dealing with is suddenness," Wimberly said. "Their lives are changed forever."

On arrival at a car crash scene, Wimberly said that investigators look for tire marks, signs of destruction on the roadway, and witnesses. Then he dispatches his crew to the hospitals that the victims have been taken to, talks to the fire department, looks at the vehicle and gets a sense of what happened.

"It's like a big puzzle," Wimberly said, "you have to put back together again."

The Fairfax County Police Department CRU goes only to fatalities or life-threatening crashes, or those involving commercial vehicles, construction mishaps, airplanes or trains. It draws the line at boat crashes.

"Our marine officers investigate that," Wimberly said.

WIMBERLY USED a March 15 crash at Seven Corners in Falls Church to describe the unit's investigative procedure.

"While we were still en route, we were gathering information," he said. "In this case, we had a death. In this case, the body was still on the scene." For that crash, the county medical examiner was also dispatched.

After a crash, some officers visit the hospital to talk to family or witnesses, others deal with the news media, while others control traffic. Wimberly made sure it's understood that the term is "crashes," not “accidents.” An accident, he indicated, is when someone is swept away by a gust of wind. It can't be avoided. All car crashes could be avoided, Wimberly said.

"Nobody uses ‘accident’ anymore," he said.

Wimberly was one of the originators of the Crash Reconstruction Unit in 1984, along with officers Hank Hughes and Bill Hennage. They started briefly investigating accidents as patrol officers in 1980, and it grew from there.

"We were the first three," Wimberly said. "There really wasn't anybody else that was doing it full-time."

Wimberly is now in charge of the five officers in the CRU and five officers in the Motor Carrier Safety Unit. He also relies on one officer to investigate abandoned vehicles. Detective Elizabeth Dohm works in the crash unit, as well. Dohm frequently deals with community outreach, putting together presentations to prevent hazardous driving, which leads to fatalities.

Dohm illustrates three impacts that make it real for teenagers learning about automobile safety: the car hitting an object, the body hitting the restraint, and the internal organs hitting the body, which is where many of the injuries from a crash take place. Dohm often uses the fatal Dale Earnhardt crash to illustrate an experienced driver surrounded by safety equipment, and speed.

"Nobody thinks they're going to be involved in an accident, especially when they're young," Dohm said.

Speed has a huge effect on the roads today, Dohm noted.

"We've seen a real increase in speeds," she said. "On the [Fairfax County Parkway], catching a car going 100 [miles per hour] is not unusual."

Dohm talked to the parents of a 17-year-old who was caught going 98 mph, and Dohm could hear the reaction through the phone. The teen’s mother was silent in disbelief, and the father started yelling.

"There was dead silence on the phone, and then the father found out," Dohm said.

Fairfax Station resident Lisa Adler sought Dohm's help recently for a program she's conducting with the Safe Youth Coalition. Adler has been trying to combat the drinking-and-driving situation as well. Dohm put together a slide show for Adler's program with accident pictures to provide realism for the presentation.

"When they see something like that, it really hits home," Adler said. "I don't know how long the effect actually lasts."

ACCORDING TO POLICE, a March 10 crash on the Fairfax County Parkway near Hooes Road involved alcohol. It occurred at about 5:20 a.m. on a weekday, which didn't surprise Wimberly. In a county with more than 700,000 registered automobiles and 800,000 drivers, many factors can lead to a crash.

"When you put that combination together," he said of the numbers, "I don't think anything surprises me."

Although alcohol was involved in two crashes currently under investigation, it's only a factor in 15-20 percent of crashes, Wimberly said.

"Alcohol is a small percentage of crashes we work," Wimberly said.

At a crash scene, the officers can usually tell if alcohol is a contributing factor through the driver's breath, mannerisms, or "They tell you," he said.

"Usually, within the first four or five minutes of the arrival of the officers, there's usually signs that there's alcohol involved," Wimberly said.

Alcohol was a factor in the fatal accident at Seven Corners on March 15 as well.

They follow the investigative procedure nonetheless.

"Just because the driver has alcohol in their system and crashes doesn't mean that's necessarily the reason," Wimberly said. "That's all part of the investigation."

In 2003, Fairfax had 60 fatal collisions, Wimberly said, and the CRU worked on 48 or 49 of those. The Virginia State Police take some of the cases, as well. Currently, the CRU is investigating the victim-dragging case on I-95 south, a manslaughter on Route 7 and another manslaughter at Routes 50 and 7 at Seven Corners.

THE EQUIPMENT that the CRU uses in an investigation includes cameras, electronic measuring gear and the "total station," a measuring device that assists with the evaluation of accidents. Total Station is a combination of an electronic distance meter that uses an infra-red light, a theodolite that measures angles, and an electronic transit to transfer the information. Part of the Total Station is a prism mounted on a 12-foot rod which can be held above moving traffic. In the field, Wimberly said in an e-mail, the Total Station's computer is connected to a laptop computer, so the investigator can download the stored information for a quick plot drawing.

Many times, paint and fabric impressions are sent to the state laboratory. Sometimes the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is brought into the investigation. The unit has even discovered a manufacturing defect that had nationwide repercussions.

"In one instance, we found a manufacturer defect during an investigation in minivans in the rear door latch. There was a national recall after that," Wimberly said.

Training for the CRU includes an eight-week session at the Police Institute of Technology and Management at the North Florida University, said Dohm.