Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Death by Screw Up

The Victims

Philadelphia Inquirer

"What have they done to you, my poor child?" Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Three dead children. Gone. Not kidnapped. Not murdered. Not killed by war or terrorist bombs or even a car accident. Official cause of death: suffocation. Real cause of death: incompetence.

The three boys were playing in the Cruz yard one evening in late June. One minute they were there, the next minute, gone. Not immediately worrisome in a humming blue-collar neighborhood on a warm summer night. Boys will be boys. Maybe they went to a friend's house to watch TV. Or followed an ice cream truck too far from home. Perhaps older children had enticed them into an adventure.

An hour passed, then two. Phone calls to neighbors and friends came up empty. The family knocked on doors. Nothing. No one had seen them. Fear began to set in. They could be lost. Or worse.

At the third hour, police were called. It took them nearly 30 minutes to respond. Would they have come faster to a more upscale neighborhood? Don't even go there. We'll never know, because there are no upscale neighborhoods in Camden, New Jersey.

Here in Philadelphia, this is a local story, but it could have happened anywhere. It's a cautionary tale for police and rescue personnel in every city, town and hamlet in the country. From what we now know of this tragedy of errors, it could be a Hitchcock movie -- but for the unspeakable ending.

The Villains

Philadelphia Inquirer

Keep this in mind: on the lawn of the small overgrown Cruz yard, partly under a tree, sits a dark red car. Throughout the 2-day highly public search for the three missing children, the car appears in almost every shot as TV interviewers talk with distraught family members. It appears in newspaper photos showing the location where the boys were last seen.

In a Hitchcock movie, the car would be the villain, hidden in plain sight, lurking there in the background of a frantic search. We would feel its menace. We would know that three small children were dying, slowly, agonizingly in its trunk. We would want to shout at the police on the movie screen, "Look in the car! Don't leave the yard! They're in the car!"

But according to an official report issued by a police chief and two members of the County Prosecutor's Office, nobody searched the car because the Camden police had never adopted national guidelines urging inspection of CAR TRUNKS, abandoned refrigerators and other confined spaces during any search for lost children.

Those guidelines were created partly by the deaths of 11 other children in car trunks in three separate incidents in the summer of 1998. The report recommends that Camden police adopt them immediately -- too little, too late for these three boys. The police searched two states and the Delaware River. But not the car sitting in the back yard.

Should the parents have looked in that car, or asked police to do it? In hindsight, yes. But how rational would you be if your child was missing? We count on the police to think clearly and objectively when we're in a crisis, paralyzed by fear and dread.

One wonders, why did none of the 150 officers involved in the hunt think to ask the families about the car? They banged on it. Leaned on it. Circled around it. But they never opened the trunk. And they never secured the yard -- the scene of the boys' disappearance. They never brought search dogs there either.

Any of those logical, routine police procedures would have led to the discovery of three small boys who had climbed into the trunk of the car through the back seat. And then couldn't get out again. Huddled there, slowly, painfully suffocating for a projected 13-33 hours while the police searched--everywhere but there--and their frantic families waited and prayed.

Instead, two days later, captured on live TV before our horrified eyes, an uncle of one of the boys opened the trunk of that car looking for jumper cables -- and recoiled in shock and disbelief, bringing the father of another of the boys running. Their screams, their faces, their Pain still resonates.

The official report lays broad general--but no individual--blame. A mother of one of the victims says she will not sue because it won't bring her precious child back. I wouldn't be so sanguine. Or forgiving. I'd be pissed. I'd be livid. I'd want to know why those trained to protect us had failed so egregiously. Had let those children die.

Doctors have a maxim about using common sense when looking for illness: "If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras." I don't know if the police have a similar saying, but they damn well should.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's easy and common to pass the blame along to others. The real blame lies with 3 sets of parents who didn't keep a steady watch on their children. If you don't hold the parents accountable then you have no right to hold others accountable.
As far as suing, it just shows how lawyers use a high profile case to make a name and easy money and how the father wants some easy money as well.
Parents need to accept the huge responsibility of having a child, not hold the police and society to a higher standard to raise, support and watch over their children for them.

6:38 AM  
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7:43 PM  

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