Bruce Pollei will never forget the woman's scream from the top of the stairs.

"Over and over again — no, no, no," he said. "She knew immediately."

What she knew was that something horrible had happened to her daughter. Why else would a Utah Highway Patrol sergeant appear at the door in the middle of the night?

Her 18-year-old daughter was killed in an auto accident on her way home from work. And Pollei had the task of telling the family.

"Their daughter — a senior in high school with her whole life ahead of her — isn't coming home," he said.

That death notification, Pollei said, has been the hardest thing he's had to do in his whole career. And others in UHP agree.

Sgt. Doug McCleve describes the task as the "most unbelievable, awful, worst-by-far, life-changing experience."

"Don't think it doesn't affect the officer involved," McCleve said. "It's almost unimaginable."

Although not immune from the emotions, members of the Highway Patrol are people who go home to their families each day, and they have different ways of dealing with their feelings.

Sgt. Phil Waters says it is important to distance himself from it.

"I do paperwork, file the report and put it to rest," he said. "I don't think about it the next day . . . . Otherwise, it's going to tear you up and you're not going to last a long time."

There is no set dialogue for the pair of officers who make the notification. The rules are that it be done in person and with two people. Other than that it's up to the troopers to determine how best to handle the situation.

On her way to do a notification, Capt. Kathy Slagowski's mind would spin with thoughts of her own family, what the reactions would be and the finality of the situation.

"It's pretty painful and emotional," she said. "I'm glad that isn't one of my regular duties."

Slagowski said she's probably done 30 or more death notifications, and she clearly remembers the varied reactions she's seen — anger, disbelief, shock.

"Every emotion you can imagine," she said. "Some people, you take them in your arms to comfort them. Others start beating on you. It puts you in their shoes and makes you think about how much the victim meant to them."

"You never know the reactions," McCleve said. "We're there for support and backup. No matter what happens, you've got help."

One woman Pollei contacted was indifferent about the death of her husband. The couple had gotten in a fight in the middle of the road. The woman left and her husband was hit by a car. When Pollei tracked her down to let her know what had happened, she said, "Oh, really? Oh, well."

"That took me by surprise," he said. "They'd been together seven or eight years."

McCleve said he had one woman come after him and call him a liar. Others have collapsed.

Despite the uncertainty of a family's reaction, troopers recognize the responsibility they have to the families of accident victims.

"You want so desperately to give the family proper treatment," McCleve said. "It's what I would want for my family."

Some families want to know everything about what happened. They ask questions and want details.

"We give information to help them deal with it," Pollei said. "It helps them, provides closure to know details."

While most officers will stay with the family for a minimum of an hour, leaving can be as hard as giving the notification, Waters said.

"You don't want to stay too long," he said. "But you don't want to rush out the door."

And sometimes, just tracking down the family can be terribly frustrating.

Trooper Jim Keller carried out his first notification assignment in July of this year. He called it the most frustrating two days of his career.

Two members of a Tahitian family were killed in an accident in Kane County, and Keller had a difficult time getting in touch with the French consulate to notify the next of kin on the South Pacific island. A 10-year-old boy who survived the accident spoke only French, so Keller had a hard time getting information from him.

"The most frustrating thing is thinking about that poor kid," he said. "The longer I delayed getting a hold of his parents, the longer he wouldn't know what was going on."

But some relatives are hard to track down, because the victim's address on the ID isn't current or they don't have ID on them.

Pollei has run into a situation where the deceased was carrying a fake ID. He made the notification to the family, who told him the boy was home. His brother was actually using his ID.

"It's a very difficult thing to make sure we have the right facts and the right people," he said.

In the end, officers may be able to put notifications out of their minds — but not always out of their lives.

The reaction from the young woman's family Pollei spoke to that night is something he'll never forget.

"It's something we both share every time we see each other," he said.


E-mail: lculler@desnews.com