Two Jersey City police officers, Shawn Carson and Robert Nguyen, were killed on Christmas night when they were called to the Lincoln Highway Bridge over the Hackensack River to help set up road flares to protect drivers from motoring off the middle of a unique “vertical-lift” bridge that had its safety features disabled by a truck crash two days earlier.

Repairs would take two weeks of intensive construction so during that time police officers were called in to shield the public from the dangers of the bridge as it was raised for boat traffic. Some call this kind of bridge an “elevator bridge” because the center of the bridge rises straight up into the sky to allow boat traffic to flow below. Maritime law requires preference be given to commerce boats over motorists. The bridge is raised only at the radio request of boats and not on a predictable schedule. There are no angled ramps to indicate the bridge deck is no longer fit for cars and trucks — the middle of the bridge just disappears up into thin air.

Lincoln Highway Bridge

Through thick, black, fog the two officers tumbled into their elite Ford F-550 Emergency Services Utility truck on Christmas night and blindly accelerated off the bridge without braking, never realizing the bridge had been raised behind them to allow a tugboat to pass beneath. Both officers plunged 40 feet from the bridge into the sludgy, icy water below.Two other police officers who knew the bridge had been raised, raced after the truck and flickered their flashlights at the truck to try to signal them to stop.

They were within 30 feet of the truck before its taillights faded over the edge and disappeared. Both officers screamed from above as their colleagues dove to their deaths below when the truck flipped over and landed on its roof in the water. In a hauntingly beautiful example of Joan Didion’s Wagon Train Morality — where a careful watch is kept over the dead by a community so nature and animal cannot steal in and desecrate the body until a proper burial can return the body to the earth — more than 300 police officers from across New Jersey, some still dressed in their pajamas, left their families on Christmas night and joined the search for the missing officers.

In the night along the rocky banks of the Hackensack River, using only handheld flashlights and candles to light their way, they searched with cold eyes and warm hearts for any sign of their fallen comrades. Many vowed to never leave until they were found. Two hours after the plunge, Officer Carson’s body was pulled dead from the river.

He died in the cab of the truck when the windshield caved into him. Officer Nguyen is still missing and presumed dead and some fear his body may have been pushed into Newark Bay with the tide never to be claimed again. A police hardhat and rope were found at the bottom of the river. Yesterday Officer Nguyen’s grieving mother went to the bridge and pleaded with her missing son to “show his face” and “return to mommy” because “people are waiting” for him.

Jersey City is mourning how such a meaningful loss could have been so easily avoided with better channels of communication. In the Deaf Community, one Cultural Norm is you never leave a group without announcing where you are going and what you plan to do next. Hearing people find those announcements tiring and tedious, but the intent for community knowing is clear: “I am going to the bathroom.” “I am going to over to see Ray.” “I am going to get into my Ford truck and drive across the bridge.” “If only” is a dangerous and vicious game to play, but sometimes the lessons it provides are more important for the living than the dead in heartbreak.

If only — Officers Carson and Nguyen had announced their plans to leave, the other officers might have said, “Be careful, the bridge was raised while you were lighting flares so don’t try to drive across it” and both lives might have been saved. If only the officers in pursuit of the doomed truck had thrown their flashlights and radios and handcuffs at the truck instead of trying to signal them with light alone against a thick fog, those in the truck might have felt a bang and slowed a bit wondering what hit them allowing their terrified pursuers to make up that crucial 30 feet to reach them in time.

This Jersey City tragedy is greater than the cruelty of two officers killed in the line of duty trying to prevent precisely what killed them; the bigger awful is how simple it would have been to save them “if only” they had known what was being raised behind their backs.

12 Comments

  1. Hi Clem!
    WordPress had a little burp and published your same comment ten times. I fixed and deleted the offenders.
    You ask an excellent question — the whole episode is still kind of vague and in-the-dark — but it seems right now the bridge controller climbed down from his perch and told the original two officers on the scene that the bridge would be raised soon.
    Those officers needed more flares and called in the big EMS truck to bring more flares to the scene.
    The officers who knew the bridge was going up were expecting a warning horn or a big light or something else to let them know what was happening and they never heard the bridge rise up so they didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late…
    The officers who died set up the flares and it seems they decided when they were finished and left…

  2. You make another fine point, Dave.
    At least Officer Nguyen’s family knows what happened, though I am certain they would prefer a body to bury, while other people just disappear and families are left to wonder why without knowing if the missing beloved is dead or alive.

  3. This raises a lot of issues.
    I wonder if there was any word if the officers did make a radio call to dispatch to advise they were leaving the scene and available to take another call, as is the routine.
    Did the officers in the pursuing vehicles try to call the officers on their radios. Did they advise their dispatch that the bridge was open?
    Were the officers from different jurisdictions and unable to communicate?
    Radio failure seems remote. There would be at least three radios available to the officers in the doomed truck — a portable for each officer and a mobile radio in the vehicle. Did the officers turn down their portables when they got into the truck, but failed to turn on the mobile radio?
    I wonder if there is any word if the radios were on or if there was another problem. Sometimes the new 800MHz systems don’t work as well as they are advertised because of dead spots and cellular interference.
    This case raises a lot of communications issues.

  4. Dave —
    Excellent point. The families of both officers tossed flowers and a red, white and blue wreath into the water from the bridge yesterday.
    Officer Carson will be buried tomorrow. I believe Officer Nguyen’s brother is a PAPD (Port Authority Police Department) officer so, yes, the family knows the risks but it must be hard for them to attend Officer Carson’s burial but not one for their lost officer.
    I read your comments on your blog yesterday! Do you know Stephanie? I thought her comment to you was strange.

  5. Hi Chris —
    I will try to answer your insightful questions with what little I know about the situation.
    The bridge connects the cities of Kearny and Jersey City — so right there you have two jurisdictions. The DOT is also involved as is the Port Authority.
    Since the safety devices were broken, the bridge called Kearny officers to come and help with traffic control. The fateful night Kearny didn’t have any available officers so the bridge called Jersey City and the two original officers showed up and then realized they needed more flares and those officers, as I understand it, contacted the EMS truck to bring over more flares.
    The NY Times reports there were two officers from the PAPD there as well and they knew the bridge was up, too, so the count of officers who knew the bridge was up is 4 and those who were never told and died is 2:
    The two officers drove across the bridge east to west without any problems. They stopped at the checkpoint the other officers had set up, about 200 feet from the opening in the bridge. But in the few minutes that it took them to hand out flares and wish their colleagues a merry Christmas, the bridge was raised for a passing tugboat. The four other officers – two from Jersey City, and two from the Port Authority police department – apparently knew this, the authorities said. Officers Carson and Nguyen did not. And because the fog was so thick, they could not see that the bridge was up. They drove away, with the officers screaming behind them, and fell straight into the frigid waters of the Hackensack River, 45 feet below.
    The local newspaper reported one of the four officers tried to leap down into the water from the bridge after them to try to save them but he was restrained at the last second by his partner — she pulled him back from the brink just in time or there would have been three officers dead that night.
    The EMS truck and officers are part of an elite unit of 800 officers and they may not be on general dispatch duty or even on the same comms link because I think they generally work on their own with special instructions — but since it was Christmas night and regular officers everywhere were scarce… the EMS unit was called in and the two officers who would die were single and that’s why they volunteered to work so officers with families could stay at home.
    The 200 foot drive off the bridge happened pretty fast and the instinct for the officers outside the truck was to run after them, not call them, so if we honor their human impulse and not a technical protocol, it seems time was so sort they had to react with their feet and not their voices.
    The officers who died were ever told the bridge was open or was about to be open though they must have known something was up because they were lighting flares.
    Here’s what the local newspaper said about the radios:
    In addition, Comey said yesterday that attempts to contact the men by radio could have been unsuccessful because Jersey City police use different channels to communicate. The bridge operator had no way to contact the Jersey City police by radio, he said.
    Here’s the plan the DOT is reportedly putting in place today:
    Under the new policy, before the bridge can be raised for boat traffic, the bridge’s operators are required to summon four dump trucks to block the western approach to the bridge, said Brendan Gill, a spokesman for the DOT. The dump trucks, which will have to drive to Kearny from the DOT yards in Secaucus and Jersey City, are large enough to completely seal off the four-lane bridge, he said. The lift bridge won’t be raised until the dump trucks are in place, and the trucks won’t leave until the boat has passed and the bridge is lowered, Gill said.
    And this haunting reminder:
    Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan said the DOT should have kept the bridge closed to vehicle traffic when the warning system and barrier on the Kearny side were damaged. He said he thinks the state should leave the bridge closed to vehicles until the barrier is fixed.

  6. Dave —
    Okay, I just re-read Stephanie’s re-response to you and I think she’s trying to be Puckish and funny and she’s coming off idiotic and disconnected. I think you’re handling her well but I also hope you’re not encouraging her to continue her foolishness!
    😀

  7. That makes more sense about the multiple jurisdictions and the various comms. The officers were running on foot and the bridge span isn’t that long, so there probably wasn’t any time to call. Even if the radio had the proper frequency programmed, it probably would take a little time to switch it to call the officers.
    I bet the officers wanted to get back to where ever they were going and didn’t even think the bridge would be up since they had driven across it. I also get the sense that it happened in a time frame of seconds which always complicates matters.
    It’s a terrible tragedy.
    It’s made worse knowing the two officers volunteered so that others could have time off to be with families.

  8. Chris —
    It was a mess from comms to weather to jurisdiction — a deadly mélange of everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
    I think you’re right; it was a nonchalant call with a tragic end.
    Today 200 rescue volunteers are out in the river again in the rain looking for Officer Nguyen’s body. He and his family practice Buddhism.
    The local newspaper is reporting this about Officer Carson:
    Jersey City Police Officer Shawn Carson is to receive the city’s Medal of Honor and the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police Medal of Honor, the highest honor bestowed by either, at his funeral tomorrow.
    It’s too bad his glory was earned in death. At least those he loved and left behind can bask in the afterglow of his honor.

  9. Officer Nguyen’s body was recovered from the Hackensack River today near the drawbridge where he fell to his death with his partner.
    The expert NYPD (New York Police Department) Scuba Team volunteered to find him and when his body was recovered from the water, the head of the team said, “He’s one of us. We weren’t going home until we found him.”