“Call an ambulance”, I shout, as I’m running across the road to the man on the asphalt. He is making a horrible gargling sound. In the three seconds it took me to cross the road, his white t-shirt was soaked with claret.
I’m applying pressure to his throat to try to stop the bleeding, but it’s coming out with a surprising amount of force.
The passerby I had shouted at for an ambulance was fumbling with her mobile phone. She said something, but not loud enough for me to hear. “What?!” I barked back. “I don’t know the number”, she blurted out, and burst into tears.
There wasn’t time to stop and ponder about the sheer idiocy of that statement. Even though I was now covered in blood trying to save the man’s life, an old joke from the Simpsons forced its way to the forefront of my mind. "Operator! What is the number for 911?!"
It started when I was on my way to a late turn shift. We’re parading at 2, so I left the house at about noon. I treated myself to a full English breakfast and a couple of cups of nuclear-strength java, before taking the bus to work.
As I was at an intersection, traffic was backed up, so a couple of pedestrians took the opportunity to cross between the cars. As long as the road is clear, there’s no problem; there’s no law against jaywalking in the UK.
I considered crossing myself, but for the hundredth time in my life since I’d taken the course, my advanced driving training saved the day; I looked further up the road, and through the front windshield of a bus, I saw a BMW R1200GS motorcycle moving up the far side of the line of traffic at a lofty pace.
‘That’s a bit risky’, I remember thinking. A fraction of a second later, someone brushed past me, and darted in front of the white transit van that was stopped in front of me.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. I opened my mouth to warn the pedestrian against the motorcyclist, but before a syllable had shaped in my vocal cords, I was interrupted by a sickening sound. The motorcycle’s mirror was the first point of impact against the pedestrian. The force against the right handlebar made the motorbike turn right, and it crashed into the back of the car in front of the van, sending the motorcyclist sailing through the air.
The pedestrian went down like a sack of potatoes, and he smashed his head against the side of the pavement as he did. I realised he must have sliced his throat open against something on the motorcycle. He grasped at his throat once, twice, and then blacked out before I even made it to him.
“999! It’s 999! Call them now!”, I shout at the shocked lady. Her mobile is still in her hands, her eyes flicking between the motorcyclist who went flying clean over the car he hit, and the pedestrian whose life is ebbing out of the gaping gash in his throat.
Another passer-by holds a phone to my head. “999 what is your emergency”, the operator asks. I glance up at the passerby. He’s only a kid, perhaps 16 years old. He is looking pale. I mouth “thank you” to him, before turning my attention to the phone. “This is Matthew Delito, PC 592 Mike Delta. I need an ambulance.” The operator connects me. “I have two casualties”, I rattle on, as I’m trying to stop the blood gushing out of the pedestrian’s throat. I’m not having much luck. His lips are going blue, he is getting weaker, and his bleeding is already slowing down.
“I’ve got one male, around 24 years of age, not responding, laboured breathing. He has severe neck trauma, bleeding profusely. The other is a motorcyclist, male, around 40 years of age.”, I say, as I glance over at the motorcyclist. He’s moaning and moving around, which means he’s hurt, but at least he’s breathing. If he’s breathing, his heart is beating. Relatively good news. “The motorcyclist is conscious and breathing, but he’s got unknown injuries. He went flying. Broken bones at least. Oh, and get some police over here, it’s a fucking mess”, I say. An off duty A&E nurse shows up out of nowhere, takes the phone -- now dripping with blood -- from me, and asks if I’m OK.
“Yeah, fine”, I bark, and look down at the man who has stopped any attempts at breathing. She checks his pulse, and relays something to the 999 operator.
“Could you go deal with the motorcyclist?” she asks me. “I don’t think there’s a lot you can do here”, she says. She produces a pair of gloves out of her purse, puts them on, and takes over from me, applying pressure to the man’s throat.
I must have looked rather grateful, because she smiled for a brief moment, then nodded her head towards the motorcyclist. “Go save a life, cowboy”, she said. I recognise her; we bring prisoners to A&E all the time. I think she may have recognised me as well.
I bound over to the motorcyclist. His arm is sticking out in a curious angle. With his working arm, he’s wrestling with his helmet.
“Hey. I’m police. Don’t worry, an ambulance is on the way. I need you to lay down and not move for a while, OK?”. He seems happy to take instructions. “What’s your name, mate?”, I ask him. He says something. I think it’s Alexej. “Alex. Can I call you Alex?”. Alex tries to nod, but I stop him. “Alex, you may have a neck injury, and nodding is bad news. I need you to lay down on your back, and just not move, can you do that for me?”. He does. I open up the visor on his helmet to give him some extra air. He looks a little dazed, but is able to talk to me.
“The man. Is he OK?”, Alex asks me, straining to move his head to catch a glimpse of the pedestrian. “I don’t know”, I lie, and hope Alex doesn’t notice that I look like I’ve been doing butterfly strokes in red paint all morning. “The ambulance will deal with him. For now, I’m just worried about you. Where do you live, my friend?” I’m talking to him about various things about his day, just to keep his mind occupied.
The first ambulance arrives, and I realise it’s bad news when they come over to us nearly immediately. “Let’s have a look at you, then”, the paramedic says to the motorcyclist. He looks at me and shakes his head. The pedestrian didn’t make it.
It’s always really hard not to place the blame in traffic collisions. In this case, the motorcyclist was going too fast for the conditions, but well within the speed limit. As far as he was concerned, he was crossing on a green light, and making good progress past a line of stopped cars. The pedestrian only saw the line of stopped traffic, ignored the red light for pedestrians, and failed to consider whether there might be other traffic behind the stopped car. He should have stopped to check, perhaps, but it’s too easy to forget. An oversight which claimed his life that day.
More police and ambulance showed up; the motorcyclist had a badly broken arm and a serious concussion. I called my sergeant, and told him the state of play. “Go home, Delito”, he said. “We’ve got plenty of people on today, sounds like you need a break”. I felt a bit bad about leaving my team in the lurch; traffic accidents like this are relatively common place, and I wasn’t particularly shook up by it. But I won’t lie: I was rather looking forward to a shower, to wash the blood off me, to get my clothes into a washing machine, and to go back to bed.
One of the ambulances gave me a lift home; it was on the way to the hospital anyway. I remember my last thought before I went to sleep was “what a horrible way to die”.
* Did you know that 999 is the oldest emergency number in the world? It was introduced in 1937. The now-famous North American emergency number 911 followed in the 1950s. In addition, if you’re calling from any mobile telephone anywhere in the world, 112 will always connect you to the emergency services; it’s built into the GSM standard. If you’re in the UK, 112 will redirect to 999; in the US, it’ll connect you to 911, and so on and so forth. If you want a break-down of all the various emergency numbers in the world, this is a good start. Pity the poor sod who has to dial the Ethiopian fire brigade’s number, which is 99193
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.