In cruel irony, the smashed truck had taken out the descanso, a white cross and religious souvenirs, marking the spot where the year before Freddy Sandoval had lost his bout with the same interchange buttress. The drunken Freddy had been northbound on NM 61, and his aging Plymouth wagon had strayed—like a homing missile—straight into the interstate support pillar.
Sergeant Payson and his ride-along got out of the car, and I saw that it had been the rookie, Deputy Robert Torrez, who had been driving. And I guessed, from the look on the young cop's face, harshly illuminated by the one functional streetlight, that I wasn't the only one who recognized the crushed Suburban.
I keyed the radio, trying to watch five places at once, including the immediate threat of an active interstate exit ramp. "PCS, three ten and three oh three are ten six this location. Ten fifty-five, ten sixty-three. Multiple. Start the call-in list. And the S.P.s."
"Ten four, three ten." Off in the distance, I heard more sirens. My number code mumbo-jumbo would expedite the whole crew—off-duty deputies, ambulance, village officer, a state trooper or two if they were in the neighborhood, and the county coroner. The spectators would arrive without being called.
I knelt again by the body, this time turned so that I was facing up the interstate exit ramp. Brains, bone, and blood mixed with gravel. The massive head, neck, and upper-torso injuries were not survivable. I guessed that he'd been flung out on the Suburban's first catapulting rollover, to be crushed into the asphalt by the heavy vehicle. There was enough remaining of the right side of his face that I recognized sixteen-year-old Orlando Torrez, the rookie deputy's little brother.
Unless he could tear apart steel with his fingers, there would be little that Sergeant Payson could do for whoever was crushed inside the mangled Suburban. And the condition of the occupants must have been gruesomely obvious, because in a moment I saw Sergeant Payson clamp a hand on the deputy's shoulder and point back toward me. Payson kept his husky, urgent voice low, and Torrez nodded, the nod turning to a despairing headshake.
As he approached me, Torrez kept looking back over his shoulder at the wreckage. He couldn't walk a straight line, and if I hadn't known better I'd have pegged him as a drunk. I stood up, and Torrez' eyes locked on the body of his younger brother. Of the seven Torrez siblings, Orlando was six years younger than Robert. The awful cloud of disbelief settled on big brother's shoulders as he hustled toward me.
Behind us, the interstate's unguarded exit ramp couldn't be ignored. We couldn't just stand there exchanging sympathies, offering a likely target for someone speeding off the interstate. I reached out a supportive hand toward Torrez, at the same time keeping an eye on the long exit ramp. He ignored my gesture.
His swarthy, handsome face ashen, Torrez said nothing as he knelt beside his brother. I swept the area with my flashlight. The
intersection's huge arc light cast hard shadows, and I turned toward the ramp behind me. Even in the artificial light, the Suburban's tire scrubs were clear, marking a plunging course down the exit slope. Sure enough, the youngster had been catapulted out on the first violent roll-over.
"He was with Elli," Torrez said behind me. I half-turned as he pushed himself to his feet and looked at me. "He was with Elli.
She's inside the truck." Elli. Elli Torrez, one year younger than Orlando.
"Three oh three, three ten."
"Three oh three." Payson was behind the wreck, where the metal was twisted and pummeled by the interstate's support column.
"I count two. Passenger compartment is compromised, but from what I can see, two. You got one more?"
"Affirmative with one. But I'm looking."
The rookie deputy already knew the status of the Suburban's two remaining passengers, if that's all there were. He'd seen his little sister and knew she was gone. But maybe... maybe if he could rip the bloodied steel cocoon from around her, there might be a chance. If he could somehow push the pieces back together... I knew the illogical desperation he felt just then.
Deputy Torrez turned back toward the Suburban, but I caught him by the elbow, hoping I could distract him with practical matters.
"Right now we need to close this ramp, Robert. Right now, before some tired tourist drives through the middle of this." If Payson had found one of the passengers still alive—if I had been mistaken in my initial, quick assessment based on seeing altogether too many of these collisions, and we could have done something to render aid—the sergeant would have shouted for help.