For Mary Allen, December 9, 2001, started as a long and lonely shift in the 9-1-1 call center in Durham, North Carolina. Another night spent on the outskirts of tragedy, aware of its presence but barely touched by its shadows.
At 2:40 A.M., she responded to an incoming call. Mary had no idea that she just took the first step onto the world stage of a long-playing drama.
"Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?"
Breathing heavy, Michael Peterson responded: "1810
Cedar Street. Please!"
"What's wrong?" Mary asked.
"My wife had an accident. She's still breathing!"
"What kind of accident?"
"She fell down the stairs. She's still breathing! Please come!"
"Is she conscious?"
A bewildered Peterson did not seem to understand the question. "What?"
"Is she conscious?" Mary repeated.
"No, no, she's not conscious. Please!"
"How many stairs did she fall down?"
Calmly, Mary repeated the question. "How many stairs did ..."
"The back stairs!"
"How many stairs?"
"Oh, ah, ah ..." His voice quaked with each syllable.
"Calm down, sir. Calm down."
Without warning, the heavy breathing ceased and Peterson responded in an off-hand manner, "Oh, fifteen, twenty. I don't know." Then the hysterical tone consumed his voice again. "Please! Get somebody here, right away. Please!"
"Okay, somebody's dispatching the ambulance while I'm asking you questions."
"It's off of a ... It's in Forest Hills! Okay? Please! Please!"
"Okay, sir," she continued as Peterson whimpered. "Somebody else is dispatching the ambulance. Is she awake now?"
"Oh my," he moaned.
"I didn't mmmm ..." Peterson's words disintegrated into an inarticulate blur of noise.
"Hello?" Allen asked again.
He whispered, "Breathe. Oh, God." Incomprehensible mumblings burbled on the line. "Breathe," he whispered again. All Mary could hear now were strained and rapid inhalations and exhalations that sounded like the panting of a dog.
Then there was silence--followed by the blare of a dial tone that mocked Mary's efforts to assist.
Elizabeth Poole's dispatch scratched out on the airways. "See an unconscious person 1810 Cedar Street. Engine 5, Medic 5. Unconscious person, 1810, 1-8-1-0 Cedar Street from East Oak Drive to Sycamore Street. Female fell down, fifteen to twenty stairs, hysterical caller is not able to give much further information, just advised it was accidental. OPS channel 2, OPS 2, Engine 5."
From their vehicle, Jayson Crank and Andrew Johnson of the Durham Fire Department responded, "Engine 5 is 10-17."
"10-4, no further," signaled Elizabeth. "Medic 5, did you copy your call to 1810 Cedar Street?"
"10-4, en route," came loud and clear from the EMS vehicle bearing Jay Rose and Ron Paige.
"Medic 5, 10-4."
At 2:46 A.M., Michael Peterson called in again. Once again, Mary Allen answered, "Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?"
"Where are they?" Michael Peterson gasped. "This is 1810 Cedar--wh ... She's not breathing! Please! Please, would you hurry up!"
In response, dispatcher Linda Gant sent out a Code 5 message indicating that the patient's condition was critical. This change of status meant Durham police were now on their way to the scene, too.
"Sir?" Mary asked.
His voice jumped up an octave. "Can you hear me?"
"Calm down. They're on their way. Can you tell me for sure she's not breathing?"
A small click was the only answer she received.
"Sir ... ?"
A dial tone echoed in her ear. "Hello ... ? Hello ... ?"
Over the next few hours, each person entering 1810 Cedar Street was shocked by the copious amount of blood. Blood on the walls. Blood on the floor. Blood on Kathleen.
Blood. A word that Michael Peterson left unspoken.
Copyright © 2005 by Diane Fanning.