JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler deals with death on a regular basis.
But that didn’t prepare her for the loss of her 16-year-old son, Dillon Paxton, who died last month in a car crash two miles north of Silverton.
“The loss of a child is horrible,” Metzler said. “There are no words. Nobody should have to deal with it. It’s the worst thing ever.”
The death toll has been especially high this year on area roads.
With three months remaining, there already have been more fatal crashes this year than in each of the previous four years, according to statistics kept by the Colorado State Patrol.
Troopers can’t point to any specific reason for the increase, but the circumstances are often the same: Drivers go too fast for conditions, they are distracted, they don’t wear seat belts, and, in some cases, drugs and alcohol are involved.
The crashes have occurred throughout the district; no stretch of road is considered particularly dangerous.
The State Patrol has recorded 17 fatal crashes resulting in 18 deaths so far this year in District 5A, which includes the five-county region of Southwest Colorado – Dolores, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan and La Plata counties.
That doesn’t include a head-on crash June 15 near Bondad on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation that killed four people. The Southern Ute Police Department investigates accidents on reservation land that involve Native Americans.
By comparison, there were only 13 fatal accidents resulting in 17 deaths in 2011.
The last year with more deaths was 2007, when 24 crashes killed 27 people. The State Patrol attributed the high number to a better economy leading to more drivers on the road.
Only about half of those killed this year were wearing seat belts.
Trooper Jonathan Silver, who investigates most fatal crashes in the region, took some criticism earlier this year for telling The Durango Herald that some rural drivers view it as an infringement of their constitutional right to wear seat belts. But he stands by the statement, saying it is in part a cultural phenomenon: Parents who grew up on farms are accustomed to driving the property without a seat belt, and those habits get passed down to their children, he said.
Parents can preach the importance of wearing seat belts all they want, but it doesn’t always make a difference.
Metzler, who has responded to numerous fatal crashes, has a saying that is poignant because it is true: “I have never unbuckled a dead man,” she said.
It is a mantra she shared with her 16-year-old son, but for some reason, it didn’t sink in.
“Him living with me and knowing what happens, it totally blows my mind that he wasn’t wearing a belt,” Metzler said.
Paxton was driving a 1988 black Ford F150 pickup about 50 mph on a 25 mph dirt road when he spun out, went off the right side of the road, overcorrected and traveled off the left side of the road. The vehicle rolled multiple times down a 100-foot embankment. Paxton was ejected and died at the scene. A passenger, who also was not wearing a seat belt, survived the crash.
Paxton’s younger brother, Tanner Paxton, 14, said his brother usually wore a seat belt, but he possibly didn’t do so on this occasion because he was with a friend, having fun and trying to act cool.
“It doesn’t matter who you’re with,” Tanner said. “The first thing you should do in a car is buckle up and advise your friends to do it.”
A fatal crash affects more than the immediate family, Tanner said; it affects everyone who has ever come into contact with the victim.
“It’s been really hard going to school every day and seeing all his friends there and not seeing him,” Tanner said.
When a fatal accident occurs, it is usually up to state troopers to inform next of kin.
Silver called it the most difficult part of his job. He has learned to use the word “killed” to help people grasp what has happened.
“When you show up on a doorstep at 1 o’clock in the morning, they know it’s not good news,” he said. “That’s when it ceases to be a number, and a name on a license becomes a family.”
Some people break down crying and need help standing, he said. Others say “OK,” and close the door.
“Every case has a different story with the family,” he said.
Silver recalled a particularly tough death notice he made this summer involving Andrew Rodriguez, another 16-year-old boy who died in a single-car rollover near Lemon Reservoir. The 15-year-old driver did not have a driver’s license, and neither boy was wearing a seat belt.
Silver went to Rodriguez’s house at 1:30 a.m. to inform his mother of her son’s death.
“Seeing her process the information that her son was never going to come home again was very difficult,” he said.
Sgt. Chad Martin, also an accident investigator for the State Patrol, said one of his most difficult death notices involved a young man who was killed after participating in Snowdown festivities. The man wore his Snowdown pin at the time of his death.
“There’s no simple way to say it. You just have to say it,” he said. “And the reactions are all over the map.”
Call it semantics, but troopers don’t like the word “accident” to describe a crash.
“We see that it’s the driving behavior that caused a crash, not this nebulous accident,” Silver said. “These people did not have to die. It was preventable.”