Fatal wreck scene haunts officer

Patterson police officer Kevin Kinslow speaks about arriving at the scene of a wreck that claimed four lives Saturday.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)

BY PRESTON GILL pgill@daily-review.com

Police officer Kevin Kinslow, the first officer on the scene of Saturday’s fatal accident that killed four people, said the images in his head will haunt him for a long time.
Kinslow was headed to the St. Mary Law Enforcement Center in Centerville when he saw dust and debris fill the air and a bus moving off the highway on the east bound side of U.S. 90, he said. At first he was not aware a collision occurred, but once he got near the commotion he saw a sports utility vehicle that had been demolished.
He was not expecting the carnage he would encounter.
Louisiana State Police subsequently reported that a failed tire caused a vehicle driven by LaDonna Cheatham, 36, of Patterson, to cross the median and strike head-on a Lafayette Parish school bus carrying 30 students.
Cheatham was killed along with her children, Destiny Cheatham, 6, and Marcus Cheatham, 16, and her nephew, Dewayne Escort, 14. All were unrestrained and thrown from the vehicle, police said. Another son, Mark Cheatham, 17, who was restrained, was taken by helicopter to a hospital with moderate injuries.
Randall Mann, an Acadian Ambulance spokesman, said a total of 11 people were transferred to area hospitals, including three by helicopter.
Kinslow, 41, said he began his law enforcement career as a St. Mary Parish sheriff’s deputy in 1991 and has “seen a lot, but this accident is one of the worst I have seen in a long time."
“I saw the car and my heart dropped,” Kinslow said. “I knew it was going to be bad.” He realized the most seriously injured victims would be in that vehicle, whose engine was torn from the chassis and came to rest about 100 feet from the vehicle, he said.
Unable to cross the median with his cruiser, he went about ¼-mile to the Centerville exit and got back on the eastbound side. By the time he exited his cruiser, there was a passerby holding Mark Cheatham’s hand.
“I wish I knew her name,” Kinslow said. “I asked that lady if she would continue to comfort him and she did. ... She gave him the moral support he needed to keep his mind off of everything else. She did a fabulous, remarkable job.”
Cheatham, 17, was trapped with the entire steering column on top of him, Kinslow explained. He said he stabilized Cheatham’s head and neck and ensured he was breathing properly. Then, looking through the vehicle, he noticed the other victims that had been ejected.
“You don’t take time to stop and think how bad things are. You act,” Kinslow said. He found the three children dead and was unable to save LaDonna Cheatham.
Kinslow said after returning to Mark Cheatham, the teenager kept asking about his family.
“We are trained not to lie to a patient,” Kinslow said. “I told him ‘Mark, I am not going to lie to you. This was a really bad accident, but I can promise you I checked on your family.’”
Kinslow, who is father to four children from 5 to 15 years old, said as he came up to each child on the ground he thought how it could have been one of his children. His family lost a daughter in January and “death in our family is fresh,” he said.
“It is a tragic loss to lose just one person, but to lose several members of your family, all in one day, especially in a horrible accident like that was, it is tragic,” Kinslow said.
He had a near-sleepless night Saturday night but his wife was a source of strength and comfort to him, he said.
Patterson Chief of Police Patrick LaSalle said working an accident with fatalities is emotionally and mentally difficult.
“There are images that you never get out of your head,” LaSalle said.
LaSalle said Kinslow came to his house Monday night to talk about the accident and unburden himself. LaSalle understood what Kinslow was experiencing from his own past experiences, he said.
Kinslow said the visit with his chief helped him and he was appreciative of the support.
“Chief Patrick LaSalle is a remarkable man. I have the utmost love and respect for my chief,” Kinslow said. “He helped me though that night.”
Kinslow still struggles with his emotions. Tuesday afternoon he teared up recalling the weekend tragedy.
“I have my moments. ... I have my sleepless nights. I have my times I need to walk off in private and have a little cry,” Kinslow said. “Anytime you have a tragedy that involves children, it’s a deeper blow to the heart. But to see virtually an entire family killed in an automobile accident like that, to know you are as close as I was and there within a matter of minutes to provide lifesaving assistance and still not be able to help, it hurts.”
Kinslow said in addition to law enforcement and Acadian Ambulance personnel, there were first responders from several fire departments on scene that worked together to help the victims in the car and on the bus.
Acadian Ambulance and the fire departments “did a remarkable job of triage, getting everybody lined up and tagged and prioritized the patients ... to get them transported to hospitals,” Kinslow said. “We need to pray for all the family, friends and emergency workers, everybody that was out there.”
Kinslow said he is looking forward to the day that he “can meet with Mark and embrace him and let him know I am glad he is all right.”
He said he plans on availing himself of grief counseling and get things off his chest, including working through what he calls the “What if? syndrome,” where you ask if things could have been different.
“I know I did everything I could, everything I was trained for. ... Do I wish the outcome was better? Without a doubt, but we don’t have healing hands,” Kinslow said. “We can only do what we are able to do and pray for the best while we are doing it and the outcome isn’t always great.”

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