I was pulling out of my apartment complex very early one morning when I saw smoke coming up from the trees across the street. The fire trucks had just arrived and there was a flurry of activity and smoke swirling up from back in the trees of the wooded area. I felt a sense of dread. It was a gut feeling in the pit of my stomach. Onlookers seemed frantic. I feared the worst.
“Children in car…” I heard.
We had pulled over and stopped on the side of the road. I grabbed my friend’s camera off the seat and jumped out quickly. The first shots I took were of a female firefighter coming out of the woods carrying an injured little girl. Another male firefighter came running out of the woods behind her carrying a baby boy limp in his arms. I took pictures as both firefighters tried frantically to resuscitate the boy and save the girl. Both children were dressed in their pajamas.
“STOP TAKING PICTURES!” she screamed at me.
Stunned I lowered the camera a little momentarily and looked around. I realized a sickening feeling. Both children pulled from the car were in a precarious state between life and death. I heard someone say the father was still in the car. Well partly anyway. I was told he had not been wearing a seatbelt and had apparently gone halfway through the windshield. When I asked about it I got a look that told me he was dead.
I also had overheard that the children, even the infant in the car seat, were not wearing seatbelts and the father had been speeding. Their mother had exited the vehicle a few minutes before at her job down the street leaving her unseatbelted children at risk. This is in a particularly dangerous long stretch of a road containing no stoplights. I have been told that speeders have been clocked driving 85 mph in this 45 on a slow day. I had photographed another fatal crash there just weeks before.
I turned and photographed onlookers. Two women who were crying grabbed me to pray with them. It was an awkward moment. Even though this was a horrible situation my role is to document it and they were interfering with that. I said a prayer with them. Then another female fire official started walking toward me yelling at me and telling me the children were dying and again to stop taking pictures.
Reluctantly I remained with the two women who were praying. I didn’t believe a prayer would help these kids live. I felt what I was photographing was immensely important at that moment but I also was sensitive to how shocking this was to all. I also felt how hostile the scene was getting with these rescuers. I thought they might try to take the camera and destroy my photographs.
After the women prayed and released me, I took a few more frames of the tire tracks in the dirt. I knew the scene was getting increasingly more volatile and I would not be safe. Emotions were running so high with misdirected and escalating anger and frustration. The fire department was targeting their negative emotions in my direction.
I did not stay to photograph the rest of the event. I didn’t need to. I had seen it all before. In my years of being a photojournalist I had become familiar with situations like this. I knew what was going to happen. I had not been able to see or photograph: the police tape going up for traffic deaths, traffic backed up, the wrecked car itself, or an emergency evacuation medical helicopter lifting off from the middle of the street evacuating with minimal chance of saving anyone.
I would have liked to stay longer to get information like I usually do but sometimes journalists really have no rights. It reminded me of what I had viewed on television of other journalists covering wars in third world countries. If you get attacked or killed no one really cares. No one would be affected by my images if they have been destroyed. For self-preservation reasons and to safeguard my images my friend and I left the scene before the police had even arrived.
These children had no chance anymore. Their parents had made a bad choice for them. The choice was to be in such a hurry that the most important things were either neglected or forgotten. A father and two small children were dead and a family devastated. No seatbelts, speeding and a third factor: too much traffic and no stoplights on a heavily driven road one lane in each direction in the vicinity of two college campuses and student housing.
In the years since it happened this incident has continued to bother me. It also made me angry too. I love children. I worked for years as a nanny and then as a preschool, VPK and kindergarten teacher as well as being a documentary photographer. I got together with several of my friends soon after this happened to decide how best to use these images. I decided at that time not to publish them on my website. However, I am a member of a community organization that works with police to make changes in the city I live in. I took those images to our next meeting where we discussed the lack of safety on that road.
Many changes have happened since then. We now have a mandatory seat belt law. The road now has four stoplights. An overpass was built to divert traffic in that area. The road was widened from two lanes to six. The makeshift roadside floral memorial with Dora and Spiderman is no longer there. A new housing development has gone up instead. Even the business where the mom worked has moved on.
But these tragedies happen all too often. It has gotten to the point where driving here is like being in combat. Just yesterday there was another horrible crash on Beach Blvd near St. Johns Bluff Rd. on the southside of town. Many more safety changes need to be made. Every time I pass the area I photographed years ago I see the scene live in my head like a movie. I still ask myself this question. Should I publish these photographs? I think they need a right time and place. I think they need to be seen. And I think that time is now. I know some of you will be uncomfortable with these images. Good. You should be. Whenever you step into a car I want you to remember them.
History repeats itself. Photographs are indelible. Maybe there is another mother who will enforce seatbelts for her children. Maybe another father will slow down. Maybe someone will think and call Uber before they leave a bar drunk. The roads and crashes here in Florida are the worst I’ve seen outside the D.C. beltway. They are getting even worse. If every day even one person changes their driving habits lives will be saved. I believe the three members of this family, and all the other victims of terrible crashes I have witnessed here over many years should not die in vain. I believe that everyone now living and driving in Florida needs to have a safer driving experience. Almost everyone I know in this state has been involved in a car crash. People here are dying this way every day. This needs to change. We deserve to have safety on our roads. Each one of you reading this can make a difference.
Slow down. Buckle your seatbelt. Pay attention. Wearing that seatbelt might be the one detail that saves you and everyone travelling with you. I can’t change this by myself. It is time that everyone in Florida becomes part of the solution to make driving here safer. Step up. Speak up. Show up. Demand safer solutions from your elected officials. Most of all educate yourself. Choose whatever action is necessary to take you home safely on these southern country roads.
©Terri Cavoli 2008/2017