by Ross Beckley
One of the darker and more difficult days I have had to endure in my career was attending “Shadowland”.
Located in the middle of an industrial area in the heart of a major city, surrounded by a high security fence, the building is an older style warehouse with no signage. It appears to be unoccupied as there are no workers’ cars or signs of life.
The building is brick façade and steel roof with brick walls about 8 foot high around the entire building. Two sets of high galvanized, colourbond doors that open from the middle are visible. There is broken asphalt leading to the doors where trucks unloading their cargo have torn up the pavement.
Strangely, there are no audible sounds. Not a noise, not a bird… nothing, just a sense of eerie quiet. Three colleagues and I have been tasked to attend here. We wait out front for the key holder. We don’t actually speak much, quietly intrigued by what lies inside those walls.
A white car appears at the gates and a tall man steps out with a bunch of keys. He unlocks the gates and in quiet soft voice tells us to follow him in his vehicle.
We drive to the side of the warehouse, park our vehicles and walk towards the heavily chained doors. Our key holder unlocks the padlocks and says, “Wait a sec. I’ve gotta turn off the alarm”. We wait as he enters the slightly opened doors and we can hear the sounds of a burglar alarm being deactivated. Beep, beep, beep is all we hear.
Slowly, one door slides open and the key holder returns, stating in a sombre manner, “Welcome to Shadowland”.
There is a distinct smell of oil, petrol and diesel which encompasses us as we slowly walk into the building. The uneven asphalt ground inside the building is littered with shattered glass, and in some spots, mud and oil soaked dirt covers the floor.
Located along the sides and in the middle of the huge space are vehicles, ranging from trucks, motorbikes, boats, and cars. Lots of cars, all bent crushed, burnt and some almost unidentifiable as a vehicle in its past life. We are now inside the police holding yard – a temporary resting place for vehicles involved in serious accidents or criminal activities.
Our key holder is a Senior Sergeant of Police who starts to tell us a little about Shadowland.
The building isn’t sign written due to the ongoing investigations being conducted within its walls. “People will go to extraordinary lengths to hide or taint their crimes given the chance,” he states in reference to the vehicles which have been used in crimes such as murder or other serious offenses.
These “crime” vehicles comprise about a quarter of the building contents. The other vehicles hold much darker secrets as they are the vehicles involved in fatalities or serious injury. Every single one of the vehicles in this building has a story to tell about its demise. Police involved in the investigations of each vehicle spend many hours piecing all the information together to fully understand the circumstances behind their final destination.
To see so many vehicles with so many tragic, albeit unknown stories, is suddenly feeling exceptionally daunting.
As we slowly walk around the vehicles, I think that some of them give relatively obvious clues as to what may have happened. Others are simply perplexing as to how they have met their fate and what may have happened to the occupants – vehicles totally flattened or in many pieces.
It occurs to me that these vehicles only show the toll of serious accidents within one region. To think there are numerous other “Shadowlands” within this state, let alone the entire country, is extremely confronting. These vehicles represent loss of human life. That’s a lot of lives lost.
The purpose of our attendance is to remove equipment from a vehicle from our organization that was involved in a fatality. This is not something I was particularly looking forward to, but as a senior officer I have no choice. We stop in front of our vehicle and I realize I am overwhelmed and emotionally unprepared for this task. I had not realized our vehicle would be among so many others. Containers of broken metal that hold the shadows of lives shattered. Worse still, the other vehicle involved in the incident with our truck is parked right alongside it.
This is rattling me. This accident happened less than 14 hours ago. Someone lost their life. The number of people affected by this has been enormous. Why are these two vehicles side by side? My internal questions are temporarily interrupted by one of my colleagues talking. Time to get to work.
It takes about two hours to remove all the gear from our truck, but it feels like an eternity. The surrounding vehicles are starting to tell me their stories, and I don’t want those stories in my head. The silence is only adding to the discomfort as my other senses start to peak and play tricks with my mind. The slight rattle on the roof startles me, and suddenly I can smell death. A part of me knows it isn’t real, not right now. But it’s there, as though I am re-living one of the past incidents I attended. It takes all my willpower to complete the job while holding back an overwhelming urge to get out of there.
It occurs to me that any serious accident has so many more tentacles of trauma and grief than people realize. It isn’t just those directly involved who are affected. Those who attend these incidents are also affected. And then, there are those who work in places such as this. Those who have to sift through the pieces of wreckage, re-creating the path which led to someone’s final demise. Constantly dealing with stories of tragedy.
We have finished our task. I shake hands with the key holder. He and other police officers whose duty it is to investigate these incidents have a hard job, and not a job people tend to acknowledge. As the doors of Shadowland close behind us, once again concealing its contents from the outside world, I wonder how different this place might be if drivers would only take more care. Not driving drunk. Not driving fatigued. Not speeding.
About the Author: Ross Beckley was a firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW (New South Wales, Australia) for 21 years, where he served as a Deputy Captain for 17 years and an Instructor for 16 years.
Ross was awarded two Meritorious Service Commendations for incidents he attended. He has been on scene in excess of 50 fatalities and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. He battled to stay on the job until September of 2014. At that time, he was medically retired due to an on-duty injury being PTSD.
In 2013, Ross started a program called BEHIND THE SEEN in Australia to teach crews about the signs and symptoms of incident stress, etc. To date, most organizations run re-active programs in Australia, but there are very few pro-active programs, which is what he does.