Playing Crash Test Dummy
The atmosphere in the briefing room was jovial and relaxed. Everyone from the rookies to the salty vets were eager to hit the road and begin their shifts. The old guys liked poking fun at the younger ones and the sergeants made sure it didn’t get too much out of hand. It was double-squad night, meaning we’d field twice the number of cops on the street. On most nights we staffed single-officer patrol cars, but double-squad nights gave us the luxury of partners and having instant backup on hot calls.
It was September 30, 1993 and I’d been a cop in Las Vegas for about a year and a half. I’d been working with my partner, Officer Fred Garcia since I graduated from field training and we were on the graveyard shift, or “the yard” as we called it. The yard was the best place for young, ambitious cops to cut their teeth and figure out the best ways to do good police work.
After briefing, Freddy and I went out to our Ford Crown Victoria squad car and readied it for the night. After loading our gear and deciding who’d drive for the first half of the shift, we headed out into the dark of the evening, ready to take on the worst Las Vegas could offer. Freddy made fun of the flattop haircut I’d gotten before work; it was all the rage then and I thought looked pretty good.
About an hour into our shift, we’d handled a disturbance call and some routine stuff. We stopped at a 7-Eleven store for a cold drink because even though it was late September and long after the sun was down, it was still in the 80’s outside. I figured a Slurpee would do the trick … and that’s the last thing I remember from that night.
Normally never wearing a seatbelt, for some reason, Bradley had it on prior to impact. He still doesn’t remember putting it on, or why he would have. It saved his life. But alas … he still spilled his Slurpee!
During this time in my career I was young, eager and paid very close attention to how I practiced officer safety. I intentionally never wore my seatbelt in the patrol car. The popular thought was, “I don’t want to be strapped to a big metal coffin if I’m ambushed or facing an armed confrontation.” I worked in some rough parts of Las Vegas and dealt with a lot of really bad actors. I was convinced going without my seatbelt could save my life by letting me exit the patrol car as quickly as possible.
Over 20 years later, I fully understand the reality. More cops die every year in car collisions than from armed assailants. The numbers prove that seatbelt usage offers a greater chance of surviving a wreck than not wearing one might have in an ambush. Back then I never wore a seatbelt.
The impact with the police car actually caused the engine of the F-250 to be torn from the frame, landing in the roadway.
Damn Drunk Drivers
Around 2300 we were dispatched to a call involving a drunk, belligerent man with a knife. It was an urgent call, but not enough to warrant running Code 3. Freddy was driving us to the call and out of nowhere — wham! — a heavy-duty Ford F-250 4X4 smashed into the front passenger side of the patrol car. We were doing about 45 mph, which doesn’t seem like much, but once you’ve seen what 5,000 pounds of metal hitting another 5,000 pounds of metal does at 45 mph, it’s really quite shocking.
Freddy lost control of the patrol car and we veered through the oncoming travel lanes, over a curb and through a Slumpstone block wall. The impacts from the truck and the wall crushed the front of the patrol car, with most of the damage on my side. The truck that hit us rolled over at least once, and the engine was ejected from the engine compartment. The truck came to rest, spilling fuel that quickly started to blaze.
Even back then, engineers were designing vehicles to absorb much of the energy in collisions and direct it away from the passenger areas. The crush damage on the Crown Vic was clear proof of their good work. The downfall of the car was no passenger side airbag. Airbags were fairly new in the auto industry and passenger side airbags weren’t standard. The front end of the car was pushed back toward me so far that when I moved forward during the impact, the right side of my face struck the merciless metal handle of the passenger side spotlight.
Bradley’s head struck the passenger side spotlight handle. He sustained severe head injuries and needed facial lacerations stitched. In spite of his injuries, he was back on duty in just two months.
After the crash, Freddy stumbled from the car and looked back at me. I was unconscious and trapped in the crushed car; blood pouring from my face. Freddy immediately called for help and it was mere moments before an army of cops arrived. Someone extinguished the truck fire and discovered the dead driver — reeking of alcohol. The passenger in the truck was injured and extremely drunk.
Freddy injured his knee in the crash and thankfully it was nothing too serious. Rescue crews had to use their power tools to cut me out of the smashed patrol car. I’m told I was conscious at this point and somewhat hostile with rescue personnel — a common occurrence for people with severe head injuries. I’m also told medics didn’t think I’d live through the night. So, rather than lose time waiting for an air ambulance they loaded me up and off we went to the trauma center.
The trauma doctors worked quickly to figure out just how bad I was. Obvious injuries included my right eyelid split in two, a fractured orbital bone with unknown damage to the eye itself. A couple dozen stitches from a plastic surgeon married the pieces of my eyelid back together. A few dozen more stitches closed some gaping cuts in my right arm.
Evidence of internal head injuries called for an X-ray and CT scans revealing 11 facial/head fractures, brain hemorrhaging and a basilar skull fracture with air bubbles entering the brain cavity. At that time, significant basilar skull fractures usually resulted in death. One of the world’s greatest neurosurgeons at the time, Dr. Lonnie Hammargren, was called in to take lead on the head trauma and brain injury.
Through all of this, I’ve been told I was conscious and mostly alert. But to this day, I have no memory for about three days of that time. One of my first post-crash memories is the thing that caused the most pain: a dark colored bruise running diagonally from my left hip to my right shoulder. I thought maybe I’d been slammed up against the dashboard during the crash. I asked one of the nurses what the bruise was from and she said, “Honey, that’s from the seatbelt that saved your life.”
I was confused. It didn’t make sense. I never wore a seatbelt. But this was incontrovertible evidence I’d been wearing one during the crash. When I saw the pictures of the crash, there’s no denying I’d have been a goner had I not been belted in. I probably would’ve gone through the windshield like a piece of sirloin through a meat grinder.
I hadn’t been expected to live, let alone ever work as a cop again. But I got well and returned to full duty a couple of months later. Ironically, I went to a medical aid call and the on-scene paramedics were the same ones who’d been to my crash. They looked like they’d seen a ghost when they saw me. I didn’t remember them but they sure remembered me. They told me their story from that night and I thanked them for helping save my life.
I gained a firsthand understanding seatbelts save the lives of police officers more often than any other piece of equipment we have. I’m not downplaying the threats we face from bad people with bad intentions, but statistics from the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Fund don’t lie — crashes kill more cops than bad guys do.
My hopeful wish is anyone who reads this story — especially you cops too — makes a conscious and logical decision to wear their seatbelt if they don’t already. In Vegas, professional gamblers play the odds and stay away from hunches or unproven methods. You should do the same. Play the odds and be a survivor. Be a professional. Don’t let something you have control over end up being what takes your life.
Bradley Nickell is a 22-year veteran detective with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.