• Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Samuel Bendet
  • Torch Magazine
A month after I'd graduated from the technical school that officially transformed me from amateur shutterbug to professional Air Force photographer in March 2002, I received my initial alert assignment. It wasn't at all what I expected, and it gave me my first real look at how fragile life can be.

Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., was my first duty assignment after training. One day not too long after I'd arrived, my supervisor came up to me and said, "We have an alert! Grab your camera bag."

Holloman was reputed to be a quiet base, and I'd heard stories about what an "alert" shoot entailed. Usually it meant a security forces member had backed into a parking sign or a civil engineer had run over a curb. So my adrenaline really didn't get pumping when my boss notified me of the alert.

As we drove to the location of the incident, I began to do a mental checklist: camera, check; batteries, check; lenses, check; camera cards, check; flash, check ...

At the scene, security forces, emergency medical technicians, and Office of Special Investigation agents stood within a cordoned area. I followed their gaze.

There was a body on a stretcher lying next to a dump truck.

I quickly realized this was not going to be an ordinary assignment at sleepy Holloman AFB.

I had never photographed a corpse, nor had I seen one before this alert call. With all the training I'd done at Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md., nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to do. With seemingly 100 eyes on me, I nervously began doing my job. I tried to steady my hands and stay emotionally detached, but I couldn't help but think about the Airman's family.

The victim, I would later find out, was Senior Airman Raoul Byrd of Adelphi, Md. This was his first day back on the job after returning from a deployment to Southwest Asia and the ensuing two weeks of compensatory leave. He was well-liked in his unit and was known as one of the top heavy vehicle repair mechanics. He was on an emotional high the day of the mishap because he'd just reenlisted and discovered he'd received his base of preference for his next assignment.

How quickly everything can change.

About 90 minutes after Byrd was handed the keys to a 5-ton dump truck that was in for repair and routine maintenance, a co-worker found him pinned between the truck's frame and bed behind the driver's side of the cab.

He'd been crushed.

Everyone rushed to his aid, but it was too late. A physician pronounced him dead at the scene.

This was my first real introduction to mishap prevention. I was twenty-something and still felt invincible at the time. But Byrd was even younger than me. It made me question my own mortality. It made me ask how some-thing like this could happen.

What I found out is that it proved to be a series of mistakes that led to the tragedy.

The dump truck had been brought in for maintenance by a civil engineering team member, who thought the power take off control cable, which provides hydraulic power to raise and lower the bed of the dump truck, was broken. A customer service representative checked the vehicle, agreed with the assessment and processed the work order.

However, the control lever system to the dump truck's bed actually was working; it was just installed inversely -- meaning it worked the opposite of all the other dump trucks on base. This lack of standardization, and the habituation of the operators and maintainers with the more common reverse system, was deemed a contributing factor to the mishap.

So when Byrd went to pull the vehicle into the maintenance bay and thought he had the bed in the down position, the bed of the truck instead partially raised. He got out of the vehicle to inspect the problem. He made the mistake of not using the maintenance stand or some other device to safely block the bed of the truck before climbing onto the back of the vehicle.

This put him into what's known as the "crush zone."

He then manually moved the hydraulic control valve, which was missing a screen or protective cover to deter such an activity, and the bed of the truck lowered under its own weight, trapping him against the frame.

After such a horrific mishap, you start going through the "what ifs."

What if the maintainers or operators had known or figured out the controls simply worked in reverse order?

What if the control system had been standardized and installed the same as the rest of the dump trucks on base in the first place, instead of reverse engineered?

What if the victim had safely blocked the bed of the truck before climbing on the back?

What if there had been better communication all the way around?

What if Byrd had come into work just a day later?

The incident made me think about all the "what ifs" in my own life. I'd become complacent more than once and put myself, and probably others, at risk.

I've shot hundreds of jobs since that day, but that first alert will always stay with me.

It served as my wake up call.