Book excerpt: Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury
Author Robert Bemis chronicles how his career as a state police sergeant was abruptly altered after he came to the aid of a distressed citizen
On March 27, 2015, Sergeant Robert "Bob" Bemis, then a 22-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police, stopped along the side of an interstate highway to render assistance to a disabled motorist whose vehicle was on fire. A passing vehicle approaching the scene lost control and struck the rear of Bob's police vehicle, which was driven forward striking him. Bob received a life-threatening and permanent injury.
After eight months of surgery, rehabilitation and physical therapy, Bob returned to his job as a supervisor and instructor at the State Police Academy. With a new direction and purpose, he served the citizens of Pennsylvania for an additional 14 months before concluding a 30-year law enforcement career in 2017.
Bob now continues to serve others by sharing the experience of his final 22 months as a trooper. His lectures have an inspirational message of resilience that spans a wide spectrum of audiences. What follows is an excerpt from Bob’s book, “Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper's Victory Over Critical Injury,” which showcases the fraternal bond shared by all who are called to serve. To learn more, visit http://www.forgedinscars.com.
LIFE COMES AT YOU FAST, CARS COME AT YOU FASTER
That Friday morning started normal enough, up at 6 A.M. for a run on the hotel treadmill. A short two-miler, it would be the last training run on my schedule in preparation for participating in the Love Run – a half-marathon on the streets of Philadelphia, set for that Sunday.
I had traveled to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to give their city police officers my training on anti-government extremists. It’s a funny thing about fate and timing. As I would occasionally do, on that day I offered my students the option of working through lunch so that we could conclude the training earlier, and I could get a head start on the weekend. Police veterans always go for the early quit. I did not know at the time that my decision to make the offer would effectively end my running career forever.
Finishing my lecture in the early afternoon, I left Wilkes-Barre and began driving back to Hershey.
I remember that the weather and road conditions were pretty good, and I was making great time. Being familiar with the route from many trips to the northeast, I knew approximate driving times along the way. Heading south on Interstate 81, I called my wife to discuss our weekend plans and the race in Philadelphia. As I neared the exit for the town of Frackville, I let Tracey know that I would be home in about an hour. Hanging up the phone was the last thing I remember.
Anything that I can share about my accident, I’ve had to learn from the official crash report and statements from witnesses and first responders. Amnesia is a strange condition, and I have absolutely no memory of the few minutes prior to the incident, and for nearly 24 hours after. It has been nearly two years since the accident and those memories never returned.
At around 1 P.M. on that day, a motorist from Kentucky was observed by several people at the Liberty Truck Stop, off Interstate 84, in Mount Cobb, Lackawanna County. The man’s 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood was towing a trailer which carried a Volvo station wagon. Pulling into the parking lot, the Cadillac slowed to a stop, at which time; witnesses stated that they saw the poorly secured Volvo roll forward on the trailer, striking the rear trunk lid of the Cadillac. As they watched the vehicle operator attempting to re-secure the load on the trailer, they noted that the rear bumper of the Cadillac appeared to be resting on the ground, due to the weight of the Volvo and trailer.
At 2:50 P.M., the Cadillac and tow trailer carrying the Volvo were on the west berm of the southbound lanes of Interstate 81, near mile marker 121 in Butler Township, Schuylkill County. Just three miles south of Frackville, this stretch of I-81 is a remote, heavily wooded area with narrow shoulders and steep embankments falling downward away from the guiderails.
The driver had pulled over after the right rear tire of the Cadillac had blown while the vehicle was in motion. After stopping, the tire began smoking and caught fire.
Approximately two minutes later, I stopped my police vehicle on the berm behind the trailer that was being towed by the Cadillac. Still dressed in business attire, the evidence shows that I retrieved a fire extinguisher from the trunk of my unmarked, Ford Crown Victoria, and began walking toward the front of my car in the direction of the fire.
Smoke from the fire was now traveling across the south lanes of the highway. As vehicles approaching the scene began to slow, a sport utility vehicle, operated by a woman from Norfolk, Virginia, swerved to avoid collision with a braking truck tractor and lost control. Her vehicle traveled off the roadway, struck a guiderail, and continued along the berm striking the rear of my car. After impact, my car went forward and struck both myself, and the disabled vehicle’s operator. My car came to rest against the rear of the tow trailer. It sucks getting hit by a car, but the insult to injury is when you get hit by your own car.
Two of the witnesses to the crash were police officers with the Amtrak Police Department. Also traveling south in a police vehicle, both officers later told me that when they observed the SUV leave the road and strike my car, they saw what they described as an explosion of debris and a person flying through the air, as if doing a cartwheel. One even believed that the person was thrown over the guiderail and down the steep embankment. I did not go over the guiderail as they thought but may have been driven into it. My body landed face down on the ground, partially beneath the guiderail and right rear of the tow trailer. The officers, Sergeant Robert Cameron and Detective Charles Crandall, stopped at the scene and went into action. Covered in blood and unresponsive as they approached, it appeared to them that I was dead, but after detecting signs of life, they immediately recognized the danger that I was still in.
Flames from the Cadillac’s tire began to spread to the trunk and fuel tank. The first Trooper to arrive on the scene from the Frackville Barracks, Mike Allar, joined with Sergeant Cameron in emptying several fire extinguishers in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading to me. Detective Crandall elected to stay by my side, covering me with a coat and trying to keep my airway open. Their concerns over whether they should move me away from the danger of the stubborn fire were relieved when they heard the sirens of approaching EMS and Fire Departments.
As I’ve thought about what that scene must have looked like through their eyes, I cannot imagine the fear and stress those rescuers must have felt trying to save my life. Sometime during the incident, they learned that I was in fact a cop, and I’m sure that only increased the pressure on them to perform as heroically as they did. If not for the courage of those three men, I would not be here to tell my story. I have thanked them many times since, but once more won’t hurt: Thank you Bob. Thank you, Chuck. Thank you, Mike.
As for the others involved in the crash, the driver of the SUV, as well as her passengers, a daughter and grandson, were uninjured. The burned Cadillac’s operator was transported by ambulance to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania where he was treated for a broken kneecap and several cuts and abrasions. The remote location initially prevented an evacuation by air, and I was transported by ambulance to a landing zone where I could be loaded onto a helicopter for my flight to Geisinger.
At 3:30 P.M., there was a knock at the door of my apartment. Looking through the peephole, my son told my wife Tracey that she better answer. Recognizing the Academy Director, Major Adam Kisthardt, as she opened the door, she initially thought that he was just stopping by to see me. Adam is so personable that this seemed normal, and before she could say that I wasn’t home yet, he informed her that I was okay, but had been in an accident. As the Major stepped into my living room, he was followed by my direct supervisor, Lieutenant Bill Summers; Lieutenant Paul Gaspich and Sergeant Phil Duffy.
In a situation similar to what the first responders at my scene were going through, my heart aches when I think of the fear that must have come over my loved ones with that much “brass” in my home. The group calmly and professionally told my wife and son to pack an overnight bag for the trip to Geisinger. They then drove my family across town in a caravan of police vehicles. “Rush Hour” on a Friday in Harrisburg is as horrible as any big city, so “code 3” is the only fast way to get through. The stress of the moment for my son was somewhat replaced with the excitement of weaving through traffic in a car with emergency lights and a siren.
Arriving at our Department Headquarters in Harrisburg, my family was brought into the lobby and greeted by the Acting Commissioner of the State Police, Colonel Marcus Brown and Deputy Commissioner, Lieutenant Colonel George Bivens. After a short wait, the two then escorted my family to a state police helicopter for the flight to Danville.
Over time it has become a lot easier to talk about the injuries I received, but that hasn’t always been the case. The sheer number and severity was staggering. The easiest way to describe it was that virtually everything on the left side of my body was affected. As I’ve begun telling my story to various groups, I’ve turned this into a corny little joke. I say that everything on the left side of my body was affected….but I’m all right now. Go ahead and chuckle, you know it’s funny.
The most serious injury was to my L1 vertebra, which was crushed, contributing to what is known as an incomplete spinal injury. My left femur was shattered. My left lung collapsed. My left hand was broken in two places. The rotator cuff and labrum in my left shoulder were torn. A hard blow to my head damaged the optic nerve, resulting in permanent vision loss in my left eye. I received a lot of “road rash.” Major abrasions and lacerations to the left side of my face and head left permanent scars and numerous dark markings embedded beneath my skin from the asphalt road surface. As I carry the remnants of Schuylkill County (pronounced “SKOO-kul”) around with me, a dear friend of mine who is a native of the area appropriately nicknamed the dark markings as my “Skook” tattoo.
Although I am not a vain person, I must admit that the one thing that I complained the loudest about in the weeks after the accident was a broken front tooth.
Within a few hours of arriving at Geisinger, I was rushed into surgery which lasted seven hours. Hardware was installed to stabilize my spine, repair my femur, and a chest tube was inserted to re-inflate my lung. Doctors also cleaned and sutured several lacerations to my face but opted to leave a larger wound on the top of my head open for healing. Five days later, I underwent a second surgery lasting eight hours, which completed the repairs to my vertebra and spine, and reconstructed my hand.
I regained consciousness in the Critical Care Unit a little less than 24 hours after my accident. Confused over what happened and why I was in the hospital, I recall repeatedly trying to ask my wife and nurses what was going on. Communication was initially difficult, due to breathing tubes. After finally realizing that there had been an auto accident, my first fear was that I had been behind the wheel and collided with another vehicle. For a police officer, the thought of causing injury to innocent civilians is terrifying. Unable to move or speak, I motioned for a co-worker, Amy, to help me write on something, and was relieved when she was able to interpret my crude handwriting. After learning the details of the accident and that no one else was seriously hurt, I remember instructing Amy to bring a laptop to my room on her next visit so that I could resume work. I don’t believe that I yet fully realized the true extent of my injuries.
Over the next several days, my situation became much clearer, and the gravity of just how close I actually was to losing my life began to sink in. I like to say that if you want a little perspective on life, try near death. My office window at the Academy is a mere 20 yards from our Memorial Wall containing the names of state police members lost in the line of duty, and it was only because of a higher power that my name wasn’t added.