On Tuesday morning, March 4, 1975, when Deputy Ken Crowley and I reported for roll call at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department Patrol and Investigation Division, it was overcast and eighteen degrees. We would be working the scout car in Romulus, a nothing-special suburb west of Detroit.
Ken was a former captain in the U.S. Army Fifth Special Forces Group, and I was a former Army Ranger, both of us with combat experience in Vietnam. Ken and I usually worked nights together, but there was a shortage of men, so our double shift, starting at 6:45 a.m., wouldn’t be over till eleven at night.
Working the scout car was a major juggling act. The pay was great, but you seldom got a weekend off, and never a holiday unless it just happened to fall on your leave day. Both Ken and I were attending college in the mornings, and since we also had to be in court every morning after we made an arrest and anytime someone contested a ticket, working nights made it that much worse. And today we were working back-to-back shifts, with no chance to go home to our wives, who worked days.
I pulled the scout car out, and we headed south. We did our usual traffic stops, responding to family disputes and other complaints on our sixteen-square-mile area of patrol. Late that night, exhausted, we were making one last sweep before heading back to the station. We drove through a tavern parking lot and saw couples holding hands, walking to and from their cars. I was thinking, someday, my wife and I are gonna have time to do just that, when a call came over the radio: “Car Thirty-one. Two o five five! Huron River Drive, west of Haggerty.”
“Huron River Drive, west of Haggerty. Car Thirty-one, en route,” Ken responded, turning on our overhead lights and siren. A 2055 meant an injury accident with people needing help.
The accident was in Van Buren Township, way out in western Wayne County, but we were the only car nearby. As I sped to the scene on Interstate 94 another call came: “Car Thirty-one, pick it up. We have reports of people in the water.”
The sky was black and the roads were bad as we headed into the rural township. At the scene, three young men had been drinking and lost control of their car on the ice-covered Huron River Bridge. Slamming through the guardrail, their car had plunged thirty feet into the river. The weather conditions were gnarly—twenty-six degrees, twenty-five-mile-per-hour wind, and light snow—and the cold, dark water was zipping by at eleven miles an hour.
Two men were inside the almost totally submerged two-door hardtop, which had come to rest on its side, facing upstream. One man was already dead, and his body was pinning the other guy, whose head and arms protruded just above the water inside the car.
When we arrived no one else was around except for the third man, who had escaped the car and swum to the far shore. He was helpless and in shock. Meanwhile, for the trapped man, time was everything. As other cars sped to the scene, Ken and I dropped our pistol belts and portable radios on the icy shore and jumped into the thirty-three-degree water. We swam to the trapped man, but the powerful current rushing over the door added to the force pinning him inside. It also tore Ken and me off the vehicle again and again as we took turns, one of us struggling to lift the door while the other tried to untangle the trapped man from his dead friend.
Arriving officers threw ropes from the bridge above and illuminated the scene with flashlights. One of our helicopters arrived and hovered low, blazing its intense spotlight down at us. The light helped, but the hundred-mile-an-hour rotor wash blasted through our nearly frozen uniforms, multiplying the wind-chill factor on our already frostbitten skin. The helicopter crew didn’t know they were hurting more than helping, and the scene was one of general bedlam: noise from the chopper, screaming pleas from the trapped man, officers on shore hollering, and our bodies and mental faculties steadily shutting down from the cold.
After more than half an hour in the water, we were ordered to shore. The trapped man heard the command, too, and frantically grabbed us. Staring into our eyes, he begged, “Don’t leave me! Please, don’t leave me!”
But there was nothing more that Ken and I could do. We had to let go. We could hardly think, our hands and feet had turned into numb, useless clubs, and even our vision was fading. We were succumbing to hypothermia, and we ourselves were drowning.
As we floundered to shore the young man’s screams suddenly stopped. The current had flipped the car onto its roof, and he sank into the dark, frigid waters of the Huron River, drowning with a last, gurgling scream that no one else would ever hear.
On shore, officers grabbed Ken and me and rushed us to Wayne County General Hospital as we sat in the back of the scout car, huddled together and convulsing uncontrollably.
Two weeks later, Sheriff William Lucas presented Ken and me with the Departmental Citation of Valor, our department's highest award.
The next month, my wife asked me for a divorce, and Ken separated from (and soon divorced) his wife.