Kirsti Marohn, St. Cloud Times, St. Cloud, Minn. – To motorists passing by, a wreck on the highway is a scene of chaos — skid marks, shattered glass, vehicles torn apart by violent force. Something to gape at, then turn away from, thankful it wasn’t them.
To Sgt. Casey Meagher, the scene is a puzzle, loaded with clues that must be pieced together carefully to reconstruct exactly what caused the crash and to answer the lingering question: Could death or serious injury have been averted?
Meagher is one of only two investigators and crash-scene reconstruction experts for the Minnesota State Patrol’s 12-county St. Cloud district. At all hours of the day and night, often in extreme weather conditions, he is called to piece together the sequence of events of some of the worst motor vehicle crashes.
Armed with survey equipment, a notebook full of mathematical equations and his own keen observational skills, Meagher starts from the point of impact and works backward to figure out what happened in those final moments.
It’s a process that requires knowledge of the laws of physics, forensic science and even human behavior.
“It’s like a puzzle,” he said. “You take all the different pieces and they’re all thrown on your desk, and you’re trying to put them all together and … make sense of them and make it look like a picture. And a lot of times, it’s not the picture that people like to see or want to see.”
Meagher prefers to go to a scene right away, before vehicles have been towed away and snow or rain have erased telling tire tracks.
But he also can examine photos taken by other troopers or damaged vehicles in the impound lot.
He gathers evidence the way an investigator would examine a murder scene. Skid marks reveal when drivers braked. Damage to vehicles tells the direction they were traveling.
Technology has made the job easier. He can download data from the vehicle’s black box, which records information about the last few seconds before an air bag deployed — how fast it was traveling, whether it braked, if seat belts were buckled.
Meagher uses modern survey equipment to document the angle of the roads and other physical features like railroad crossing arms. The information is logged into a hand-held computer device and then plotted onto a map.
But Meagher also uses old-fashioned handiwork. With a few measurements at a scene, he can calculate how fast a vehicle was traveling when it left the road, went airborne and landed in a nearby field.
That was a real-life deadly case. Meagher shows his carefully handwritten equations that he used to come up with the answer: more than 75 mph. Sometimes the reasons a crash happened are straightforward.
Other times, there can be many factors that led to the final result. A driver’s perception and reaction time are critical, Meagher said.
“How long does it take for you to see a hazard and for your eyes to tell your brain to tell your feet to come off the gas and put them on the brake?” he asked. “It seems like a simple thing that happens instantaneous to us.”
The truth is it typically takes anywhere from three-fourths of a second to 1 1/2 seconds, Meagher said. A vehicle traveling 60 mph travels nearly 90 feet every second.
“You’re traveling a lot of ground in that amount of time,” he said.
Meagher is careful to lay out the objective facts in his report. He concludes with his opinion of what caused the crash: Excessive speed. Failure to stop at a stop sign. Driver inattention.
The report will be analyzed by insurance companies, attorneys, maybe even prosecutors. Meagher is often called to testify in criminal cases or civil lawsuits, sometimes long after a crash.
“We’re dealing with these things for years,” he said. “It’s not something that we can go out and pretend it never happened after today.”
After 14 years as a state trooper, Meagher approaches each crash scene with a clinical eye and detached professionalism. But it’s impossible not to feel the human impact of a tragedy.
“There is no possible way to sit at a table with a family that lost a loved one in a crash, after you’ve put everything together, and not feel the emotions that go along with it,” Meagher said. “There’s no possible way to exclude human nature. … Every trooper has a family.”
The images don’t go away. There are dozens of crash scenes that Meagher can conjure when he closes his eyes. Like the four-vehicle crash when he was a trooper in Willmar: Before his shift was over, he had to tell three families their loved ones had died.
“There’s just certain things at certain times will trigger those emotions to come through,” he said. “I’m not aware of a way to disconnect from that. You can’t. And I don’t think it’s healthy to try and disconnect from it. I think it will make you a better investigator, because you want to look at things from all different angles.”
Meagher tries to keep a work-life balance, spending time with his wife and three kids, going to hockey games and gymnastics meets.
He also speaks to high school physics classes about the real-world applications of principles like velocity, speed and momentum.
“Everybody thinks that it’s not something that’s going to ever affect them the rest of their life,” Meagher said. “Well, if you’re going to drive a car, physics actually applies to you.”
Meagher also visits driver’s education classes to share his stories. Perhaps he can convince at least one young driver to slow down, pay attention, put away the cellphone.
“I think it’s important for kids that are at that age to have a personal connection to somebody that will tell it to them like it is — not sugarcoat stuff and pretend that it happens to somebody else,” he said. “To lay it out there and tell them that I live in this town, and the reason I’m talking to you is because I don’t want to have this conversation with your parents.”
If he can change one person’s behavior, it was worth his time.
“That’s hopefully worth one person’s life,” Meagher said. “And how do you put a price on that?”