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I Told You I Wasn't Perfect
By Denny McLain, Eli Zaret
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Denny McLain Eli Zaret
All rights reserved.
Kristin Dawn McLain, the oldest of my four children, had been to dinner with some friends and was driving home in the early morning hours of March 20, 1992. She was 26 and single, and having recently moved to Michigan from Tampa, she was staying with us until she found a place of her own.
I had gone to sleep early, as usual, because I had to be up at 4:00 AM to host The Denny McLain Show on WXYT-AM in Detroit. At about 2:15 my wife Sharon woke me with a nudge. I glanced at the clock to see if I had overslept. When I saw that I still had a few hours of sleep remaining, I turned my head to see Sharon sitting up in bed.
"Kristin isn't home," she said in a voice tinged with worry.
I rolled back over and mumbled, "Relax, she probably slept at somebody's house." I understood Sharon's concern because Kristin always kept us abreast of where she was and what she was doing. But I wasn't in the mood for conversation when I needed to get back to sleep.
When the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, I saw that Sharon was still awake, and her look told me Kristin still hadn't arrived. I was about to get out of bed to shower when we heard a car drive up.
I looked at her and said in a semi "I told you so" tone, "Ya see? She's home." We heard a car door close and then, about 10 seconds later, the doorbell rang.
My first thought was, "Kristin has a key. Why would she ring the bell?" We lived in a very rural area, and it made no sense that anyone else would come to see us in what, for most people, is still the dead of the night. I opened the door and saw a policeman. "Oh! I was looking for a Mr. McLain," he said, "but I didn't know it was you."
I quickly asked him if there was a problem, and he said, "Denny, your daughter is at the hospital — she's been involved in an accident, and you need to get there right away."
Several times I pressed him, "Is she okay? Is she hurt badly?"
All he would give me was, "You need to get to the hospital as soon as you can."
We were babysitting for Markey, the 15-month-old son of our other daughter, Michelle. Michelle was in Gulfport, Mississippi, with her husband, Mark, who was in the navy. I ran upstairs and relayed to Sharon what I'd just heard from the officer and told her we needed to wake up Markey and get going.
We sped to the hospital, and aside from the radio and Markey asking little-boy questions, we rode in silence. As we turned off M-59 in White Lake Township, we saw police cleaning up what looked like an accident scene on the five-lane highway. It was still before sunup, but we could make out a demolished vehicle. I remarked to Sharon, "Man, that musta been a bad accident." The car was so mangled and burned out you couldn't tell the make or the color.
We parked in the first spot next to the emergency room. I grabbed Markey and got out of the car so quickly that I left my keys in it. We told the girl at the ER desk that we were the parents of Kristin McLain and would like to see her. She shot me a nervous glance and said, "Let me get the nurses."
"I would rather see Kristin," I said sharply.
Sharon and I both looked at each other knowing that something was awfully wrong. The silence the next few seconds was deafening.
Two nurses emerged from a nearby door and approached with slightly bowed heads. One of them asked, "Are you Kristin's parents?"
When I said, "Yeah," the other nurse recoiled slightly and murmured, "Oh."
Her body language penetrated to my core. Before she could utter another word, I said, "What does, 'oh' mean — and can you please take us to see her?"
"The doctors will be here in a moment to talk to you," the first nurse said, and motioned us to a nearby waiting room. As we walked toward the room I again asked to see Kristin and thought even more strongly, This is wrong. Had Kristin been able to talk to us, we'd be going to see her, not headed to a waiting room. Between the antiseptic smell of the hospital and a pair of nurses avoiding conversation, a sense of monstrous agony began overwhelming me and Sharon.
Within 30 seconds, two doctors entered the room. Wasting no time, one of them immediately said, "We've got some bad news."
"What bad news?"
"Your daughter was in a horrible car accident with a truck and another car, and she was unable to make it. She died about two hours ago."
Sharon had held it together until that moment. We had Markey to deal with, and he had probably helped us maintain our composure. But now the dam burst, and she began sobbing and wailing. I might have gone into shock at that point. I showed no expression or emotion. I just remember thinking and saying over and over again, "This can't be happening."
One of the doctors explained that the paramedics and the fire department had been heroic in their efforts. One paramedic even suffered third-degree burns on his arms trying to pull Kristin out of her blazing vehicle. But there was nothing any of them could do for her. By the time she reached the hospital, the doctors explained, she was already gone.
We had failed to put together that the scene on M-59 was the aftermath of Kristin's accident and the wreckage of her Chevy Blazer.
Through her sobs, Sharon managed to ask the doctors, "Can we please see her? Maybe there's been a mistake?" Before they could answer, she angrily begged, "I have to see her. Please let me see her!"
One of the doctors looked at us. "There was a fire," he said quietly. "I think it's a better idea if we do that a little later. Let the staff first clean things up and then later you can see her, okay? That would be much better for you right now."
I was still too shocked to physically react. I kept repeating to myself, "This can't be true. Nothing like this can happen to my family." Life had been going so well. Who can believe their daughter has been involved in a horrific accident? Nothing prepares you for a moment like this.
I recall almost nothing of the trip back to the house or what we did when we got there. In fact, when we passed the accident site again, it still hadn't registered with either of us that that's where Krissie met her fate. I do know that at some point I called the radio station to let them know I wouldn't be at work that morning. Word travels fast. The station already knew about the accident and had a substitute coming in.
When we got back to the house, we called our other three children to share the awful news before it reached them on radio or television. I remember nothing of those conversations. By midmorning a few friends had heard what happened and came over to console us and handle funeral arrangements.
Friends in the restaurant business sent over tons of food and asked what else they could do to help. There's no answer. No one makes plans for losing a child. You just thank them for asking.
Cheryl Chodun, a reporter from the local ABC television affiliate, called around 9:00 AM from the accident scene and said, "You better get an attorney. This should have never happened." Cheryl described where the accident took place, and it was only then that I put two and two together and realized that Kristin's accident and the accident that we had seen were one and the same.
As I was asking Chodun some questions, Sandy McClure, a reporter from the Oakland Press called on the other line and said, "There's more to this than just an accident."
Until we talked to the reporters, we knew none of the details, but suddenly it was turning into a criminal investigation. The reporters told me that a truck had blocked three lanes of the highway and Kristin had been unable to avoid it.
McClure had learned from the state police that the driver, Leonard Martin, had been in the process of backing an 18-wheeler into a tight driveway, and his truck had stretched across three of the five lanes of poorly lit M-59. His taillights created glare off a window and made it difficult to see the entrance to the driveway.
It was then, at 2:00 AM on a poorly lit highway, that Martin had the bright idea to turn off his lights to eliminate the glare while he backed his 40,000-pound truck into the driveway.
Kristin was driving west on M-59 and neared the crest of the hill doing the 50-mile-an-hour speed limit. The truck was sitting at the lowest portion of the highway's dip, blocking the westbound lanes. Not only were the lights off, but the truck's reflectors were also obscured by grime.
Kristin apparently saw him the last 40 to 50 feet, but her move to go around was too late. Had Martin backed into the driveway on his first or second attempt, she would have gotten home — but it was all about bad timing. She skidded 25 feet before ramming into his back wheels, pinning the Blazer under the truck. As the front end of her car compressed, the steering wheel fractured all of her ribs and pinned her into the seat. But she was alive.
With the truck blocking the two westbound lanes and the Blazer jammed under it, Martin tried turning the truck into the middle lane so it would face straight ahead, rather than remain straddled across the highway. It had to have been an attempt to eliminate the evidence of blocking the highway with his lights off. But as he turned, the Blazer came loose and wound up facing back in the direction from which it had come.
Martin's first reactions should have been to turn his lights and flashers on, exit the truck, light flares, place glowing caution triangles on the road, and call 9-1-1. But he didn't do any of that.
While trying to reposition his truck, he left Kristin alone and vulnerable. Less than a minute from the initial impact, a drunken 19-year-old in a pickup truck came speeding over the hill and smashed into the Blazer head on. The pickup caromed off the Blazer and wound up in a restaurant parking lot. Amazingly, neither the driver nor his other two passengers were seriously injured.
An emergency technician who worked on an ambulance and had just gotten off his shift happened to be one of the next cars to drive by. He acted quickly, reaching into the driver's window to try to extract Kristin. But he couldn't pry her free from the steering wheel pinned to her chest.
It was then that the Blazer caught on fire under the hood.
The technician shouted to others arriving on the scene to call 9-1-1 for help, and he ordered Martin to run to his rig for a fire extinguisher. But Martin's extinguisher emptied quickly and was no match for the now-raging flames. Meanwhile, the tech kept yelling at Krissie, "Stay with me. Hang on. We're going to get you out of here."
He ran around to the passenger side to see if he could pry her out that way when there was an explosion, forcing flames through the floor and some 50 feet in the air. The technician escaped the car and wound up with third-degree burns for his efforts.
The scene continued to play out as horrified motorists stopped and tried to help. About 15 minutes into the drama, the White Lake volunteer fire department arrived and put out the blaze by throwing sand and dumping a ton of water on it. As the volunteers screamed at Kristin to wake up, they used the Jaws of Life, hoping to free her by the time a helicopter from the University of Michigan Hospital and burn unit arrived.
Finally, some 45 hellish minutes after the initial impact, they succeeded in prying her from the wreckage. She was still alive as they strapped her to a gurney and rolled it toward the helicopter that was waiting to take her away.
But Kristin went into cardiac arrest. The gurney stopped. After two collisions and a fire, a tech announced that it was over.
The chopper headed back to Ann Arbor, and the ambulance took Kristin to White Lake Hospital, where she was officially pronounced dead.
We never did get to see her. The accident had broken almost every bone in her body and the fire had disfigured her.
By midafternoon, after hearing the stories about the accident from any number of reporters, I couldn't take it anymore. I broke away from the gut-wrenching scene at the house to go to the crash site. I was prepared to find Martin and beat the hell out of the demon who killed my daughter. The newspeople were still there, and Chodun, the TV reporter, pointed out Martin, who was now unloading his truck. I walked in his direction and was intercepted by one of the cops, who asked me what I was doing. I yelled, "Are you kidding? This asshole just killed my daughter, and you're asking me why I'm here?"
With the cop standing between us, I yelled at Martin, "What happened? What did you do?" When he stood there mute, I said, "Give me an answer, you gutless bastard, so I can tell her mother. Her mother wants to know why. Is that so hard, to tell us what happened?"
By then, a couple of Martin's associates surrounded him to make sure I kept my distance. Another cop who'd come over said, "Denny, go home. Please go home. This has been a horrible day, but to start trouble will just make it worse." I called Martin every name in the book for not giving me any kind of explanation and walked back to my car.
Later that night I learned that he had been "lawyered up" within an hour after the accident and told to keep his mouth shut. Had he driven his truck as effectively as he shut up, Kristin would be with us today.
All Martin needed to do was follow basic trucking safety procedures, which dictate what to do after an accident takes place. But not only had he tragically erred in causing a young girl to crash into his rig — then he failed to help her.
Further punctuating the grief and horror of Kristin's death was the system's inability to give her justice. The drunken kid got probation, and Martin walked away. They said it wasn't criminal intent and dismissed the charges. We'll never understand that. He was backing into the driveway, blocking three lanes of a highway in the dark without his lights on. Not one bit of safety equipment was out on the highway for other drivers to see — nothing! He didn't follow any of the post-accident procedures that are prescribed to truckers for events like this. How is that not negligence at the very least? And isn't there such a thing as manslaughter? Obviously, he didn't set out to kill anybody, but that's exactly what he did.
The autopsy revealed that Kristin was sober and had her wits about her, like she always did. Timing and the worst possible judgment by a professional trucker just when it counted the most had killed my daughter. I've never stopped asking myself, Why not put out the flares and the cones? Why not call 9-1-1? Why not call the cops to come and stop traffic? Why not use the fire extinguisher right away? Why, why, and why?
If Martin had a conscience, he never displayed it to us in any form. It was as if he'd just delivered another load — nothing more and nothing less.
Kristin Dawn McLain had come over that hill and never had a chance.
* * *
She was born September 28, 1965, the first child and a gift from God to a 21-year-old pitcher enjoying his first full season in the major leagues. I thought she was the most beautiful child I had ever seen.
In the 1966 season, Sharon would wait for me to come home from the ballpark so I could give Krissie her nighttime feeding. I would goo-goo her and burp her. I can close my eyes now and feel her falling asleep on my chest as we lay on the couch.
From the very beginning, I thought of Krissie as my perfect reflection — a fighter, a kidder, and a quipster who came up with more Yogi Berra sayings than Yogi himself. She was as close to the perfect child as any parent would want, and she grew into a wonderful big sister for our sons Tim and Dennis Jr., and Michelle, our fourth and youngest.
Her first boyfriend and longest-running love was a kid from school named Brian. He picked her up for their first date in his dad's car and endured an interrogation at our front door that almost had him peeing in his pants. When it got to the point where he was visibly shaking, I finally backed off. Brian got her home on time and never once in high school did Krissie miss her curfew.
We loved Monopoly, and I always played banker. A devious banker can always cheat his way to victory. Krissie was every bit as competitive as her dad, hating to lose any game at any level. Our last Monopoly game was Christmas, 1991.
I cheated as always, but her brothers, sister, and mom kept landing on her hotels. There were only two of us left. In the final move that ended my 20-year winning streak, I landed on her hotels and went bankrupt. After whooping with delight, she said, "Dad, it takes one to know one. Denny (Jr.) kept feeding me money under the table. You lived by the sword and now you've died by it!"
Excerpted from I Told You I Wasn't Perfect by Denny McLain, Eli Zaret. Copyright © 2007 Denny McLain Eli Zaret. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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