DEATH IN THE INFERNO
June 7, l972 weather: clear
Tour of duty: 1600 X 2400 hours
Assignment: Patrol Sector Adam 123rd Precinct
Partner: Police Officer Joseph Besignano, RMP#2132
My stomach tightened when the patrol car radio crackled and the
voice of the police dispatcher directed 123rd Precinct Sector Adam-Boy to respond "forthwith" to the smelting plant on Arthur Kill Road regarding a serious injury. I glanced over at my
partner, Officer Joseph Besignano. Joe returned my look of concern and we sped to the assignment. We knew from experience that many police calls for assistance at that location were ghastly
industrial accidents. Joe and I had about the same time on the job. We weren't regular partners, but knew each other pretty well. He had a great sense of humor and I always remember him with a smile
on his face. There was no sign of a smile on Joe's face now as we listened to second calls on the radio. Even the police dispatcher's voice betrayed a note of urgency as he updated us with additional information.
I made a quick U-turn and gunned the accelerator as Joe flipped the toggle switches to turn on the
domelights and siren. "Forthwith" was an old-fashioned term used in police parlance. It meant to respond without delay. When used within a police radio transmission, it usually denoted extreme
emergency. The accident must have been a very serious one.
"Abandon every hope, you who enter." Those words of Dante came to mind at the sight of the
glowing metal smelting factory. The horrid place resembled a Nazi death camp when viewed from the street side. The plant encompassed hundred of acres and was located in an area of Staten Island known
in more genteel days as Richmond Valley. In days gone by, the countryside was probably quite scenic, but with the coming of that factory, the natural flora and fauna of the area had suffered immeasurably.
On the landscape surrounding the plant, trees and vegetation were stunted and sickly looking. Even the soil appeared to be ruined by years of pollution. Columns of brick chimneys stood over the plant
like giant pillars of fire and continuously belched black acrid smoke into the air. The smothering soot covered everything downwind from the factory.
During the hours of darkness, the main building could be seen afire with cauldrons of liquid copper as the bubbling mass of metal was heated to incredible temperatures. The white-hot lava was poured
into forms and when cooled, the resulting ingots of solidified copper were shipped back for recycling into new telephone cable. One of the procedures in the smelting plant was the stripping of insulation
from the reels of old used cable. The copper cores of the cables were then cleaned of foreign substances. It was in the so-called "stripping section" that the injury had occurred.
The headlights of the radio car reflected against the entrance gates of the factory. The gated opening was located opposite a dreary and poorly lit train station of the Staten Island Rapid Transit System.
In the dimness, a rusted and pockmarked station sign indicated the train stop for this hellish place.
The sticky humidity of the early summer, the sounds of the insects droning in the night air, and the heat radiating from the radio car as it idled, added to the dinginess of the site. A uniformed security
guard ran up to us and excitedly spat out the fearful news of the accident. His ill-fitted company issued shirt was soiled and reeked of body odor as he directed us to the area of the injured worker.
The drab brick buildings on either side of the driveway added to the sinister atmosphere of the place. Most of the structures in the main area were built of corrugated metal. The site appeared to be littered
with various materials used in the smelting process. Gigantic reels of old phone cables wound onto wooden spools were everywhere in the vicinity of the stripping department.
We drove into the interior of the plant grounds; we could see eerie shadows reflected against the walls and windows of the plant. Flames illuminated the movements of the laboring men toiling within the
structure and cast black undulating patterns in the bursts of glowing redness. The stink of chemical exhausts hung over the entire site as the chimneys belched their foul odors into the night air. As we
approached the stripping area, workers frantically waved their arms and made various hand signals indicating the path to the scene of the accident. My chest grew tight from the stress as we drew
closer to the location. I was thankful that my partner and I had not had the chance to take a meal prior to this assignment. An empty stomach proved to be a blessing.
There was an overpowering sense of foreboding as the headlights revealed a large group of men encircling a central figure. The group seemed transfixed at the sight before them. Someone had turned
on a large, bright floodlight which cast a blinding white backdrop to this fearful scenario. We jumped out of the patrol car and as we approached the circle of men, they parted and revealed the sight that
had the men in the grip of terror.
Nothing prepares even street- hardened police officers for the shock of an especially gruesome
industrial accident. "Dead on arrival" or DOA as they are termed in police jargon is a reference to all
dead bodies. They are part of the lives of all cops. On almost a daily basis, cops on patrol duty see death in all its forms. They know just how fragile the human body can be. The sight of the victim
within the circle of onlookers was shocking to the exteme. The body appeared to be that of a black male. He had somehow become enmeshed in the unraveling cables, which had wound around his body
in ever tightening rings. The machine upon which he worked continued to unwind the cable until the lower portion of his torso was squeezed. All the blood and body fluids were forced up into the upper
torso and swelled his chest three times its normal size. His body had been continuously turned in a circle, spinning him round and round relentlessly. This caused his head to be repeatedly smashed into
the pavement and his skull to be totally destroyed. It appeared his entire blood supply had been thrown from the top of his lacerated head. Brain tissue was everywhere. The actions of the machine
had twirled his body and sprayed the blood in all directions.
We isolated the scene and tried to move the crowd of workers a distance from the body. I looked at the
faces of the man's companions as they gazed on the sad spectacle before them. Most of them were awestruck and moved as if in a trance. The compassion in their eyes touched me deeply. The sight of
their buddy overcame many of them with sorrow. I could see anger in those eyes also as they clenched their fists and wiped tears from their cheeks.
We covered the dead man's body and shielded it from their view. A heavy silence fell over that place as we called for medical personal to respond to the scene along with members of the Police Emergency
Service and the detectives.
When we had roped off and isolated the area surrounding the body, I had a chance to examine the
condition of the dead man. The glare of the floodlights created a ghastly sight. The contrasting shadows highlighted the reddish gore of the shredded remains of what had been a living man.
However, I noticed that his face was still very much intact. His large dark eyes peered into eternity with an unblinking gaze. There was a look of puzzlement, yet a look of resignation in his expression. I
could hear the sirens of the responding police units. As they arrived, we guided them to the scene of the accident and after conferring with the medical personnel, the Emergency Service cops began their work.
There are all forms of recognition of excellent performance of duty. But the recognition that many officers cherish is that of their fellow police officers. Peer recognition by comrades under trying
conditions is grudgingly given. It is earned under fire in the crucible of everyday police work. Emergency Service cops are such police officers. The work that they do deserves the undying
admiration of regular street cops who rely on these men on a daily basis. The bravery and skill that Emergency Service officers display is renowned.
A cop from Emergency Service Truck Five stood for a moment studying the accident scene and quickly decided on a plan of action. He selected a large cable cutter from the ESU truck and glanced at
me as I stood by his side. He could read the pained look on my face and looking directly into my eyes, he proceeded to slip on white rubber gloves methodically pulling each finger until they were fitted snugly.
Slowly, with a deadpan expression, he spoke in a feigned accent and said that Doctor Frankenstein will now operate. The hard look in his eyes belied his words as he began to methodically cut each cable
that imprisoned the mangled man. Such humor is difficult for most people to understand; however, it broke the unbearable tension of the moment. It was not meant to be funny. As he sliced through the
last cord, the body slumped onto the ground. At last, the corpse was freed of the serpentlike grip of the wires. After placing the body onto a canvas body bag, we searched for identifying papers and
safeguarded what little personal effects were in his clothing. His identity, which until that moment had not been of such importance, now became a paramount issue.
Later, when the detectives were finished with their initial investigation, the body was removed to the morgue. A complete autopsy was required in cases of death by violence. The Chief Medical
Examiner's Office had jurisdiction and the autopsy report
would be a central element in the final determination of the detective's investigation.
As the medical personnel removed the body of the dead man and placed it into the ambulance, Joe and I stood in silence in the company of the small group of workers. We watched the blinking red lights of
the vehicles as they left the factory grounds. Audible sobs could be heard behind us as the glaring floodlight was finally extinguished and darkness again hid the terrible site from our view.
I turned to Joe and we quietly entered the patrol car and proceeded to leave the grounds of the plant. As the gates shut behind us, we breathed freely of the night air and kept our thoughts to ourselves. I
said a small prayer for the man whose life had ended so suddenly and with such violence. I thought of my wife Laurel at home with our three children. Laurel always sent me off to work with a kiss and a
sad look in her eyes. A certain dread pervades the life of the spouse of a cop. The man who had met his death in the smelting plant must have had a wife with similar fears. The work in that smelting plant
was a dangerous occupation.
As the police car crested on the railroad overpass near the factory, I glanced back at the entrance to the
smelting plant. Joe just stared thoughtfully at the road as we headed into the precinct to do the paperwork.
That incident would live in my mind's eye for the rest of my life.
©Copyright l999 Edward D. Reuss
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