Facing the aftermath of drunk driving
Emergency sirens will have already faded into the distance when RCMP Cpl. Donavan Gulak arrives at the scene of a fatal collision that claimed four lives.
All that is left is vehicle wreckage and the bodies of those who have died.
“By the time I get to the scene, all the parties are gone. The injured or suspects are gone from the scene. I’m left with the aftermath,” said Gulak, a collision reconstructionist.
Gulak, 40, recalled the scene where four foreign workers died and one was severely injured, in a head-on collision on Hwy 2 near Innisfail on March 4.
“Part of my job is to pretty much get inside the vehicle or get right up close and personal,” Gulak said.
“They had just picked up their supper. So it was still warm.”
Tyler James Stevens, 30, has pleaded guilty to four counts of criminal negligence causing death and one count of criminal negligence. He will be sentenced on Jan. 4.
Gulak, who has been in collision reconstruction since 2005 and has worked full time in the Red Deer area since 2009, was also the investigator at the March 31 crash on Hwy 11A that killed two Red Deer teenagers and injured three others.
April Gail Beauclair, 30, slammed into the two teens who were trying to push-start a disabled car while its driver steered and pushed from the side.
Gulak said those teens didn’t have a clue what was coming.
“That particular car was already on the shoulder. They were as safe as they can be without pushing it into the ditch.”
People assume when their vehicle is broken down, others will drive around them — but they shouldn’t make that assumption, he said.
“Even with our emergency lights on, vehicles still smoke into us. Flash red and blue lights, going back and forth, and they plow into the back of our PCs (police cars).”
As an investigator, Gulak remembers cases by file number — not names.
“That’s one of our coping mechanisms. We don’t deal with names. Bad enough we’ve got to know ages.”
In 2006, he didn’t have that opportunity when he discovered a friend who died as a passenger in a single-vehicle collision in the Morinville area.
The impaired motorist was driving aggressively, passing at a high rate of speed, lost control, flipped sideways into a tree and killed his friend.
Gulak didn’t recognize the vehicle when he arrived so he didn’t expect a friend to be inside.
“You can’t prepare yourself for arriving at a scene and sticking your head in that vehicle and recognizing the victim. It hits you and you’re not prepared.
“The memories are still fresh in my head as the day it happened. And I see lots.”
Emergency workers, like Damian LaGrange, a fire-medic with Red Deer Emergency Services, are trained to rescue and perform triage under the most horrific conditions.
But LaGrange said at times the image can be hard to shake.
“We get a glimpse in time of a horrible event that affects so many lives,” said LaGrange, 38.
“A car completely split in half with a seatbelt stretched right out and an occupant has been projected out of the vehicle despite the fact that she had her seatbelt on.
“A body laying in a way that almost doesn’t resemble a person anymore.”
On the scene, EMS personnel are professionals first and approach the job systematically, he said.
“We do the extractions. We control the traffic. We keep the scene safe for everyone involved.” They cover the bodies of those who died.
“(EMS) will put the emotion part aside and do their job and focus, focus and take care of all the needs of patients at the scene. It’s not until afterwards that there’s an impact, typically,” LaGrange said.
Department members are trained to lead special debriefings after “a bad call.”
“A critical incident stress debriefing is more to address emotions and what you saw and share your feelings. You share feelings so you know you’re not alone. It kind of sets up a bit of a support network for you,” he said.
The City of Red Deer also has counsellors available through an employee assistance program.
Gulak said it’s not just trained emergency responders who face the grisly consequences of drunk driving.
“So many people get affected. Tow truck operators — you think they signed up for that? The first people on scene, normal civilians. People aren’t ready for that.”
In the first quarter of 2012, Gulak had 36 calls for service and out of 11 alleged impaired crashes and others, he had 14 bodies.
“That was a bad start to the year. Thankfully it tapered off significantly.”
Unfortunately, Gulak said he hasn’t noticed a decline in alcohol-related collisions since the stricter drunk driving laws went into effect earlier this year.
“Alcohol in my line of work constitutes probably 70 per cent of the collisions that I go to. The other 30 per cent would be some sort of distracted driving.”
When Gulak isn’t piecing together a collision, he makes public presentations, complete with police investigation photos chosen to capture his audience’s attention with victims who are similar in age or work in the same occupation.
“I don’t vet anything. I won’t show collisions from the area in case they know somebody, but the ones I do, show the bodies, pieces.
“I’ve done an auditorium with 300 students and you could have heard a pin drop.”
Gulak also shows international public safety announcements, deemed too graphic for Canadians, because he says they better depict the reality of vehicle collisions.
“I see the consequences of people driving too fast or aggressively or drinking. I see it. Why can’t (our) government show that?”
LaGrange said he can’t help but become hyper vigilant of other drivers after attending to victims of a suspected impaired collision.
“This could have easily been my family. This could have easily been my wife and kids in this vehicle. You’re left with a feeling: what could be done to stop this. It’s been going on for so long and yet people are just not getting the message.”
LaGrange has been with Red Deer Emergency Services for 12 years. Like his co-workers, he can’t help but preach the importance of driving sober, he said.
“It’s the nature of the job. You see the effects of it. You know most of the time the general public does not see the final outcome to that bad decision to get behind the wheel.
“We tend to be that constant reminder to our friends and to our family and to people that we know — if you’ve had a couple, don’t get behind the wheel.”
Emergency room physician Dr. John Colebrook said from a doctor’s perspective, drunk driving collisions, whether with vehicles, snowmobiles or ATVs, are frustrating, especially when they are referred to as accidents.
“The term accident really implies it’s a random event. There’s nothing you can do to control it. When you look at something like impaired driving, that’s an easily modifiable factor in the collision,” said Colebrook, who has been working emergency in Red Deer for about 10 years.
Hospital staff don’t necessarily know the person they are treating is the possible victim of a drunk driver because that information is not always relayed, he said.
But doctors do know if the police suspect drunk driving. Special protocol dictates doctors must fill out paperwork to collect blood samples and a doctor must draw the blood.
“It’s quite possible that we’ve got people from different vehicles in the trauma bays and they could be within 20 feet of each other.
“Potentially, we’ve got the person at fault, the person who wasn’t at fault, very close together, dealing with everything at once. I’d say it is emotional.”