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.
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.