There is a certain profundity that is expressed by silence in the face of screaming tragedy. Quiet has a potential to permeate the soul deeper than any cry could, hit harder than the fiercest blow. With somber sadness and a quiet reverence for a life gone in only a few seconds, my partner and I stood over the body of a woman who was alive and working at the machines only ten minutes ago. Now, her skull was gruesomely crushed, open and split onto the cold concrete. The factory, usually buzzing with activity and clanking machines, was totally shut down. The hundred or so workers who manned the iron from nine to five were frozen in their positions, standing in awe. Their smudged faces peeked out from yellow hardhats, betraying a contorted mixture of disbelief, shock, awe, fear, and sadness. Silently, we all stared at the result of an accident that brought the entire factory, and this woman’s young life, to an abrupt halt.
She was assisting on a large iron press, we were told in whisper. The machine exerts several tons of pressure, and through some miscommunication or some other horrific lapse, this woman was caught underneath it on a downward stroke. The result was the worst traumatic injury I have ever seen: a crushed skull and brain matter spread out in a fanning pattern. The face was an unrecognizable mash, attached loosely to a body that lay lifeless in an awkward, contorted position. We didn’t even check a pulse. There was no point.
We conducted our business under our breaths, passing word to the police officers that the patient would be presumed dead having sustained injuries incompatible with life. Firefighters wordlessly began surrounding the workstation with a large opaque tarp, shielding the entire area from the tearing eyes of her coworkers and friends. I was able to get demographic information from some of the factory management, and then quietly made my escape back to the ambulance.
My partner and I stowed our gear and climbed back into the truck. Looking at each other from driver’s seat to passenger, we couldn’t come up with anything other to say than “holy shit.” Silently, we drove back to the ambulance bay.
I’ve been to the scenes of many recent deaths. Car accidents, shootings, various cardiac arrests. Outside of health facilities there seems always to be some distraught family member or friend, loudly exclaiming their grief in either cry or yell. It used to bother me to see the faces of these anguished people, and it was usually with them – not the patient – that I empathized. For some reason or another I don’t usually find myself sympathizing with the dead. They’re gone, and in most cases there seems to be plenty of grieving going on anyways.
…But not this call. It was deathly quiet. The silence was so thick that it had to be managed, considered as its own passive obstacle like knee-high sand. We waded into that factory though oppressive quiet and took in a scene that few should have to bear witness to. We saw a hundred hard-hatted faces, watching and silent as if they were waiting for the woman to take her next breath and spring from that contortion. It was a frozen moment of time, lasting an hour, where consideration and re-consideration of events past left little room for outward emotion or cry. It was unreal.
We were brought in to talk with our supervisors who worried whether we were okay. They were extremely accommodating, asking if there was anything we wanted or needed. They said they knew that the scene was pretty gruesome, that it is tough for anybody to see a body so mangled and dead like that.
But it wasn’t the gore. It was the quiet. Seeing that person lying there frozen where she last moved herself was an extremely powerful experience that I don’t think I will soon be rid of. It was as if the clock stopped immediately after that machine banged downward, and though the area surrounding that small space shuffled and blurred in the background, our dead patient remained in sharp focus, preserved in powerful tragedy on the precipice of comprehension.
…And all we could manage to say was “holy shit.”