Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Tod Hileman remembers the white knuckles of parents waiting for him to deliver “the words they never wanted to hear.”
Their teenage daughter had died in a car crash on the highway.
“What caught my attention was they were squeezing each other’s hand so tight,” he said. “… I just got the sense, like if they could squeeze each other’s hand tight enough,” he would say something else.
Hileman rarely tells this story because it is so emotionally taxing, but he agreed to talk about it for a new series of blog posts to promote road safety. The Kansas Department of Transportation series began Sept. 22 and will continue through Oct. 11 as part of a nationwide campaign called Put the Breaks on Fatalities.
“The purpose of these stories is to bring attention to the importance of practicing safe driving and to understand the real-life consequences when crashes occur,” the agency said.
The series will include stories from four KHP troopers about their experience of notifying next of kin when someone dies in a car crash. Hileman is included in one of two published so far.
His story involved a crash in which a teenager driver was distracted by her phone, crossed into an oncoming lane and hit another car head-on. The driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was thrown through the windshield. A back seat passenger who was wearing a lap belt high over her stomach also died. The front seat passenger and two occupants of the oncoming car were properly buckled in and survived.
Hileman helped investigators collect evidence and reconstruct the accident while others redirected traffic on the busy highway. He found the driver’s ID and had to compare it to her face to confirm the match. She was the same age as his daughter, with the same color of hair and eyes.
Notifying the parents, who were waiting on the other side of town, is “the worst part of our job,” he said. He was filled with dread.
“You try to save kids’ lives,” Hileman said. “I have to relive this over and over again.”
Trooper Ben Gardner remembers standing on a porch years ago after a drunk driving death on Easter morning.
The drunk driver had crossed the center line in a pickup truck, striking another pickup and killing a man who was on his way home to his wife and children after a late-night shift. Gardner, who was awakened by a 3:30 a.m. call from dispatch, could see marks on the road where the victim had tried to steer away to avoid the collision.
At sunrise, Gardner stood on the front door with a woman who didn’t yet know she had lost her husband. Small children gathered around her, looking confused. They were expecting their father, not a trooper.
“I say what I was always say: ‘It is my sad responsibility to tell you that your husband has been killed in a crash today. He is dead.’ And then I pause,” Gardner said.
Sometimes, people will fall to the ground in these situations. Some people get angry. The woman just stood silent for a long time. The children wandered away.
He choked up. At that point, he said, “it’s about being a human being.”
“I’m the person who will cry with the person,” he said.
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Story from Sherman Smith / Kansas Reflector