"There's a wrong-way crash out on eastbound I-10 near Quartzsite. It's a bad one too! You better get your team out there right away, Trooper Fernandez," said the dispatcher sternly. Damian hung up the phone and turned to other troopers in the office and said, "mount up and meet in the motor pool in five."
On his way out the door, Damian looked into the mirror hanging from the wall to adjust his Montana peak hat. Damian wanted that slight forward tilt they taught back in cadet school – which conveys a subtle sign of humility and reminds troopers that they are in service to a higher purpose. A smile appears on his face when he thinks about how his dad is always teasing him, calling him "Smokey Bear" when he sees him wearing the hat. Usually, the teasing doesn't bother him, but sometimes he still wonders how accepting his father is towards his chosen profession.
Julio Fernandez is a prominent neurosurgeon who practices at the Mayo Clinic in the Phoenix area. Julio's family were influential power brokers in Mexican politics. Still, Julio was determined to chart his course and become a U.S. citizen while working on his medical degree at the Stanford School of Medicine. Damian's parents met when his father was a resident at Stanford Hospital. Damian's mother, Elena, was a trauma nurse at the facility. Elena came from a well-to-do Greek family with long ties to the import-export business in New York City. When Elena graduated from nursing school, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to escape the cold New York winter weather, but more importantly, from her overbearing mother. Shortly after Julio completed his residency, they married. Several months later, the Mayo Clinic recruited him to join their staff in Phoenix.
When their first child was born, Elena wanted to name their new son Damian. Saint Damian is the patron saint of physicians, and she hoped Damian would follow in his father's footsteps and pursue a career in medicine. Julio was a bit nervous since the conjunction of Damian and Fernandez in one's name is not common, especially in conservative Arizona. Still, he acquiesced as he often did when Elena had her mindset on something.
Of course, Damian did get teased frequently about the name growing up. He developed a certain "thickness of skin" that would serve him well as time went on. However, that "thickness" would quickly dissolve when his father expressed displeasure with him. Like the time in fifth grade, where he "faked" a cold to get out of participating in the school play, or the time he came in third at the junior varsity swim championships even though his father had worked with him all summer on his technique. Then there was the seminal moment Damian told his parents he was pursuing a career in law enforcement. That was the biggie!
But wait, there was time to think of that later...
Right now, there was a crash scene to investigate, and this was Damian's first investigation since he was assigned to lead the Major Accident Investigation Team for District 4 of the Arizona Highway Patrol Division, located in the Yuma district office.
Damian huddled briefly with the troopers in the parking lot. "Let's get going," he said to his team. "Dispatch says the traffic is backing for miles on eastbound I-10, so we need to get there quickly and get our work done as soon as possible before we start having all kinds of other problems from motorists stuck in this heat." They got in their cruisers and sped away up U.S. 95 headed towards Quartzsite. It would take at least an hour to get there.
As they sped northward on U.S. 95 through the Yuma Proving Ground, Damian reflected on what motivated him to apply for the lead position on the "Crash Team," as they called it. In the days long before he ever thought of becoming a cop, he witnessed a tragic vehicle crash while returning home early one morning with his parents from a cross-state swim meet. It was a horrific scene of carnage! It was something you just could not "unsee." He remembers his father bemoaning how the State of Arizona "just doesn't do enough to prevent these senseless wrong-way driver accidents!" Damian felt a sense of helplessness as he gazed in horror at the morbid scene of twisted steel and mangled bodies, but he thought to himself - one day, maybe he might be in a position to make a difference.
Making a difference was important to Damian. So was following rules. If everyone just followed some basic rules in life, the world would be a better place for it, his dad would say. When he decided he wanted to be in law enforcement, he applied to several schools. In Boston, Northeastern University – a school highly sought-after for its exceptional criminal justice program, had recruited him, but he loved Arizona. He didn't mind the heat in the summer. He loved spending time in the mountains backpacking with his friends and renting houseboats on Lake Powell. So, when the acceptance letter came back from Northern Arizona University, it was a no-brainer.
The team arrived Code 3 in just fifty-six minutes at the crash scene just west of Quartzsite. Damian parked next to another Highway Patrol cruiser. There was a slowly lifting haze of smoke everywhere when he spotted Trooper Stan Miller talking with a Fire Captain who was taking a break now that they had extinguished the major vehicle fire. "Hi Stan," Damian said. "Looks like a real mess here. Who was the first on the scene?" Stan points over to two La Paz County deputies standing next to a police cruiser having a rather animated conversation with their boss.
Damian peers over at Sheriff Fred Koontz, and they exchange perfunctory nods before the Sheriff returns to the discussion with his deputies. Damian turns back to the firefighter and asks, "Is it safe to begin our work, Captain?" "It should be," he says. "Just watch the ground as you walk around. There's a lot of small pieces everywhere, as well as spilled automotive fluids all over the place." "I would be particularly careful around that burned-out hulk over there," he added, pointing to the charred remains of what looks vaguely like a minivan of some sort. "I'm guessing there were several people in that minivan from the looks of all the luggage strewn near it." "We're not sure who was in it since it was fully engulfed in flames when we arrived on the scene." "Ok. Thanks," said Damian.
Damian turned to his team and directed them to get started with their investigation. Now it was time to speak with the Sheriff and his deputies. Damian's commander warned him once about Sheriff Koontz. He said, "This guy has a lot of pull in this county, and if you get on his wrong side, watch out! He's got a quick temper, so if you ever have any dealings with him, remember to bring your kid gloves." Damian kept this in the back of his mind as he approached the trio.
To be continued…