Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Biden MVA: The Response I Can't Shake

VP claims driver in fatal '72 wreck was drunk because that's what officials told him!

WILMINGTON, DE (March 26, 2009) – This narrative is in response to a CBS Report suggesting that a Pennsylvania man, Curtis Dunn, who was involved in the fatal accident involving Vice President Joe Biden’s deceased wife, Neilia, was not intoxicated. I was there in an official capacity, and the facts as I remember them are as such.

For those of you who are reading my work for the first time, and aren't aware of my history, I am a veteran firefighter and AEMT based in Delaware. At the time of Neilia Biden’s accident, I was studying at the University of Delaware and serving as a 20-year-old probationary volunteer fireman.

I refer to the current Vice President as Joe, not out of disrespect, but because in 1972, everyone in the state referred to Mr. Biden simply as Joe.

On the afternoon of December 19, 1972, I was returning home from classes at the University, when my fire scanner blurted out a dispatch for a "PI 10-10," a personal injury auto accident, on Limestone Road. Although firefighters and first-aid personnel weren’t permitted to respond to alarms in personal vehicles, first-in units indicated that the situation was very serious, so I made the decision to drive directly to the accident scene.

The Scene

In 1972, the intersection of Limestone and Valley Road was very remote, a rural section of New Castle County made up of mushroom farms and a lone liquor store. However, as I arrived, the scene was unusually busy with dozens of onlookers and those who had stopped to render assistance.

Law enforcement on the scene included a Delaware State Police officer, as well as a PA State Trooper, who had been ticketing a truck driver at the state line about 3/4 mile north of the scene. A first-aid crew and firemen from the volunteer station in Hockessin, Delaware had arrived, and the department’s fire policemen were taking positions to direct traffic. Scanner reports indicated that three other ambulances were on their way from Mill Creek, Newark and Pennsylvania.

A mangled auto lay in a ditch, about 150 or so feet from the intersection, and as I moved closer, it became apparent that persons were trapped in the wreckage. The Trooper had already checked the auto registration and radioed his supervisor that he believed the victims to be members of the Biden family. I hoped that he was mistaken.

The first-aid crew was working on Mrs. Biden while others searched for the infant, Naomi. Beau and Hunter Biden had been bounced around on impact and were severely injured— including head injuries, lacerations and broken bones. I was horrified.

A group of us huddled around an eyewitness, listening to her describe the accident. From her account Neilia Biden was stopped on Valley Road, preparing to cross Limestone Road. The woman recalled that the Biden car began to cross the road, and was struck broadside by a truck driven by Curtis Dunn of nearby Avondale, PA.

Limestone Road was a popular trucker shortcut in the Piedmont foothills leading from Delaware into Pennsylvania. The intersection with Valley Road was extremely dangerous, located at the bottom of two steep hills. Truckers traveling in either direction used the momentum coming down one hill, in order to climb the other. The speed limit on Limestone Road, at the intersection, was 35mph and huge REDUCE SPEED signs were posted a half-mile in both directions. Whether Curtis Dunn was speeding is unknown, but he had applied his brakes, which was apparent from twin 150 ft. skid marks.

Mr. Dunn's Condition

With the focus on the seriously injured Biden family, another firefighter and I attended to Mr. Dunn, who was seated in his truck. He was in shock, and had difficulty understanding me when I explained what had happened. He kept asking the same question over and over. "What am I doing here?" I placed a cervical collar around his neck and checked vital signs. A secondary survey revealed lacerations and contusions, but he was breathing, not bleeding badly and therefore was in no significant danger.

In regards to intoxication, there was no way to determine if Mr. Dunn had been drinking, since neither of the police officers had breathalyzers aboard their cruisers. His injuries were such that his demeanor was similar to that of someone in a stupor, but those of you who serve in emergency medicine know that such behavior is often presented by victims who are in shock, or perhaps even diabetic.

The scene was chaos, but within 10 minutes ambulances, and police escorts, began rushing the family members to Wilmington hospitals, about 16 miles away. Keep in mind it was the early 70’s and there was no ALS or paramedic system. Those of us who were firefighters had 40 hours of first-aid training, and our job was to make certain that the victim was breathing, that severe bleeding was controlled and that a patient's injuries were stabilized as best we could. Then we were off and running, rushing the victims to the hospital as quickly and safely as possible.

Beau and Hunter were the last to be moved because they required special attention. I recall Larry Mergenthaler and Don Lentes, both veteran volunteer firefighters working carefully on the boys. Beau and Hunter couldn't have had a better team treating them. It's said that every firefighter chooses a mentor early in his/her career, and it was at that moment that I chose mine.

I’ve learned that all of the records pertaining to this accident are lost. It doesn't surprise me. Back then our ambulance incident report was filled out on a 5x7 card and filed away in a box. Once a month the information was transferred to a master list, which was latter placed in storage.

If Mr. Dunn was intoxicated, there was no way to determine that at the hospital either, since alcohol blood tests were not mandatory in 1972. The hospital records are missing, as well as the police reports. To be honest, those of us in fire-rescue here in Delaware assumed that Mr. Dunn had been drinking, based on comments made by police officers at the scene. And in the Delaware fire service, rumors travel from station to station like wildfire.

Until he remarried in 1977, whenever Joe Biden attended a public safety event, parade or spoke during a firehouse banquet, police officers and firefighters would approach him and discuss the accident and the tragedy of his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi falling victim to a drunken driver. Imagine how those discussions must have affected the young Senator.

Curiously, the Attorney General’s office never filed charges against Mr. Dunn, and so the official word is that he had not been drinking.

Fast-Forward

The next time I came in contact with Beau Biden was during his campaign for Delaware Attorney General in 2006. Beau, a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, had just completed a debate with his opponent, Ferris Wharton. Beau, and the entire Biden clan, were in the lobby of an elderly high rise shaking hands with well wishers and supporters. My wife approached Beau and mentioned that I had been one of the firefighters who responded to his aid back in 1972.

He grabbed me by the sleeve and we walked to a quiet area. He called his brother Hunter to join us. There were few words; plenty of tears but both men thanked me again and again. I mentioned that I knew their mother personally, as I served as a media volunteer on Joe's first senatorial campaign.

The last time I saw Neilia alive was a week before the election, when I drove her to a meet and greet at the Stone Balloon in Newark. A popular band called The Boys were performing and the place was packed. But when Neilia walked onto the dance floor, she became the center of attention. She often was.

As first responders, our participation in emergency incidents ends when we back the ambulance into the station. We're trained to forget details. But the Biden accident and my work at ground zero are two incidents that I’ll take to my grave.

###

1 comment:

Lisa Fields said...

Lou,

I enjoyed reading and learning from your post. I think what struck me most was how balanced you were as you gave the facts.

I reallly didn't know a great deal about Sen. Bidden and his family before our recent election. The courage this family has shown when life has not been fair is humbling.

I know when I see individuals/families after the darkness and they have the opportunity to tell their story this is what makes up for all the challenges that go with the job.

"If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive."
Barry Lopez

Lou, thanks for telling us this story to help us all remember to remain objective, continue to show empathy and pass on the information in a professional manner.

Cheers,
Lisa Fields