ALPENA - Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski will never forget the first fatal automobile accident he investigated as a young deputy, although it occurred almost a quarter century ago.
Racing to the scene on Heron Road, he found a crushed vehicle resting on its top, with a child's car seat inside.
"You're a rookie," he said as he sat in his office at the Alpena Sheriff's Office. "In the back of your mind you're always wondering how you're going to handle these kinds of things."
News Photo by Betsy Lehndorff
Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski stands next to a Total Station laser surveying device that he used to help generate the reconstructed crash animation scene playing on the TV screen behind him.
He found out that summer night, and since then has become one of the region's top accident reconstructionist, despite the tragedy that always is at the surface.
Kieliszewski assists sheriff's departments in Presque Isle, Oscoda, Alcona, Montmorency and has investigated more than100 crashes, including personal injury cases.
A trained and qualified expert in court, he can give an opinion of how a crash took place. He also now has access to laser measuring equipment and other devices stashed in a Chevy Tahoe.
Instead of 100-foot tape measures, Kieliszewski relies on Total Station surveying equipment, using a laser beam to map skid marks, debris, vehicles and other evidence so accurately that he can create a slow-motion animated video of what happened.
But when he first started in law enforcement, Kieliszewski was a patrolman on Mackinaw Island, and traffic accidents were the farthest thing from his mind. That changed, though, when Kieliszewski became a deputy in the Alpena County Sheriff's Office, and the challenges grew.
"I always thought I would have some difficulty handling individuals who were deceased, especially people involved in a crash. So I wasn't really sure."
A short time later, he and his partner found themselves enroute to their first fatal.
"When we arrived on scene we saw the vehicle was resting on its top and we couldn't find the driver," he said. "There was so much crush to the roof and she also had a child. So we didn't know if the child was inside and we couldn't see the driver as well. So we had to get down on our hands and knees and crawl around the vehicle."
He chooses his words carefully.
"The family is still here," he said.
"At that point we started looking in the woods. Then we found the driver. But there was no child, thank God."
A state trooper enroute to another crash stopped by to provide instruction, Kieliszewski said.
"He told my partner and I how to measure the scene. So we did it by hand pulling tape," Kieliszewski. "We had 300-foot tapes, 200-foot tapes and 100-foot tapes."
From there they documented on a legal pad the location of tire impressions, the vehicle, felled trees and accident debris.
Their conclusion - the driver failed to negotiate a curve and the vehicle went off the road and rolled, ejecting her.
"The first thing you have to do is investigate the scene," he said. The step after that is extremely difficult.
"You're going to a family and you're telling them about the death of a loved one," Kieliszewski said. "And then you have to deal with the emotions, all of the questions, the denial. You answer their questions to the best of your ability. You have to be honest with the family."
His next fatal occurred on Lake Winyah Road, when two 12-year-old girls on scooters were killed head on by a car. He declined to elaborate, because the community is still suffering today.
"We already knew how to process the scene, so this time I wondered how do these things happen and why," Kieliszewski said.
"A lot of people think it's called an accident and that accidents just happen out of the blue," he said. "But that's not the case. It's a crash and there's a reason why crashes take place."
Kieliszewski contacted a former professor at Ferris State University and was referred to a Michigan State University class in Lansing, which offered accident investigation training to law enforcement officers.
That was in 1991 and he began commuting to Lansing to attend. As technology evolved and data became more accurate, Kieliszewski kept up.
"I like doing this, because it's a challenge," Kieliszewski said. "But every time I'm called out it's a tragedy."
The county recently upgraded its hardware. Instead of a classic radar gun to measure distances, Kieliszewski now has a used, Japanese-made Sokkia laser transit, acquired for $4,000. A specially equipped prism on a pole is used to reflect the beam, and $2,000 worth software digitally stitches the data into a moving picture. He also is able to download information from the black boxes that are standard equipment in modern American cars.
"When we get called on a crash, we arrive on scene and we'll talk with initial police officers. They'll tell us for example that they have a single-car crash at a curve, where the motorist failed to negotiate the curve and went off the road way.
"We start from the final rest of the vehicle, and examine it, then work our way out, looking for tire impressions, the debris field and other evidence on the scene," he said. He also reads tire impressions and skid marks for their clues.
Then he attaches special devices to his Chevy Tahoe and drives the crash vehicle's route at a low speed, duplicating what the motorist did. This enables him to measure friction, so he can determine speed and other physics of the accident.
When two vehicles collide, the issues become more complex. Kieliszewski has to figure out approach angles and friction and calculate what he calls the "conservation of linear momentum."
"In the meantime you have other calls coming in so it doesn't mean you can spend eight hours on the investigation at a time."
The ultimate goal is to determine if there is going to be criminal prosecution, he said.
"You have to show that the crash was the result of an error of the driver and didn't occur by any other means," he said.
His work over the years has had another benefit.
As crash investigations have improved, so has public safety and fatal automobile accidents are now rare, he said.
Vehicles have more crushable surfaces so they absorb more of the energy of a crash, he said. They are also equipped with air bags, better seat belts, advanced head lights and brake lights and other safety features. Driver's education and law enforcement techniques have also improved.
"So the chances of surviving a crash are better," he said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.