Captain courageous

2010-10-07 00:00

CAPTAIN Dolf Otto, Unit Commander of the Pietermaritzburg Accident Unit, has one of the toughest jobs in the city and one which most people would not be psychologically strong enough to handle. And yet he endures, enthusiastic about the job he has done for over 20 years.

Often first on the scene, his first aid training has been invaluable in saving lives at accidents and at other times. He even helped resuscitate a man who had a heart attack in church last year. “It’s funny. I am often just at the right place at the right time,” says Otto smiling.

He even performed CPR on his son Morne at six-months-old after he stopped breathing during an epileptic fit.

For Otto accidents seem to stand out for different reasons. “It’s always worst when there are children involved.”

He recalls a bus accident at Ifafa where 32 people died. In another, an entire family died after their car was hit by a runaway truck at the corner of French and Alexandra Road in 1993. He said he had been at school with the man, and that his wife was pregnant at the time. They had another very young child in the car with them. “The next morning I came back to the scene and there was a baby’s shoe lying on the carseat.” The poignancy of this moment is evident on Otto’s face.

He recalls the horror of the Liberty Mall Christmas Eve bus crash and another bus crash at Newcastle where over 30 children died.

He soberly tells of an accident on Christmas Eve one year where two children died, their bodies at the scene surrounded by their wrapped Christmas gifts.

The horrors Otto has faced include having to throw his clothes away after not being able to get the stench of burned bodies out of them. He has seen people burning in cars, helpless to do anything. He has had people die in his arms.

So why does he do this job? “No one forces us. We do it to help people. I couldn’t do it without my faith in God, but we talk about what we see and try to be strong. We don’t do it for the money; it’s a calling.”

Otto takes some comfort in that if the case has been properly attended to, it can be properly investigated. “I have been able to prove cases we could have lost if the investigation had not been done properly.

We take a lot of flak. Not everyone is happy with what we do. We work with injured people, violent people and intoxicated people, sometimes around hazardous substances in terrible weather conditions, and you are tramping in oil and blood.”

The paperwork around any accident is hugely important says Otto, as it could be the reason a family is not properly compensated if the paperwork is incomplete. Accident investigations have become extremely specialised and technical.

With expert Road Accident Fund (RAF) and insurance investigators, Otto knows that his investigation, in terms of the human, vehicle, road and environmental factors, must be thorough enough to stand up against them in court for criminal and civil litigation and other investigations.

“An accident scene is a crime scene if a crime docket is opened. It can be difficult, because the police officer is trying to conduct an investigation, but there are necessary paramedics, the fire department, tow trucks and traffic officers on the scene as well. It becomes important to preserve every element, like where a bumper is bashed or where the glass is lying. It’s all crucial evidence.”

Otto’s accident crime-scene investigation includes taking photographs of every angle he can, compiling a detailed plan of the accident scene and opening dockets.

He interviews people involved, and inspects damages on the cars and the road, recording all the information. It’s about precise procedure in a chaotic environment.

Otto’s job also demands that he attends aeroplane crash scenes and train accidents.

He has not hesitated to help injured animals, telling of an occasion where he gave a dog oxygen after it was injured, bandaged up goats and assisted a horse. “I treated them as I would people.”

But he has also had to put animals out of their suffering by shooting those that are badly injured.

Quick Q&A

Given the stressful nature of your work, how do you relax?

I go fishing with my boys. We camp at dams, make a bonfire and just have fun. I also spend weekends helping with first aid at Voortrekker school rugby matches.

(What few people know about Otto is that he also represents the province for both the police chess and fresh-water angling teams.)

Any nicknames?

I’m known as Captain Gadget and Captain Reflective at work, because I love any gadgets and I cover everything I get with reflective tape. (Which makes sense if he is attending accident scenes at night, often in the mist and rain.) They also call me Captain Chaos at fishing. I am considered bad luck on a boat because once I was on a boat with some traffic officers and it sunk so we had to be rescued . I now stay on the shore and fish from there.

In your experience, what is the main cause of accidents here?

Driver’s attitude, people not caring about the state of their car, drunk driving, talking on the cellphone or smsing while driving, and not caring about other people on the roads. Misjudging speed is another factor. At 60km/h you are travelling at 16,6 m per second, and at 80km/h at 22m per second. Pedestrian and bicycle accidents are increasing. Pedestrians cross wherever they want. The motorist always gets blamed but the pedestrians are not making themselves visible.

What is the one thing you drum into your boys’ heads about driving?

Wearing a seatbelt is a must. I see the results of not doing this over and over.

Tell me about your alter ego, Captain Crime Stop.

As part of an SAPF initiative, I would dress up as this superhero and speak to children about different aspects of crime. I wore yellow tights, blue underpants and a red cloak. It took a lot of guts to put that suit on. My son Ryno gets very embarrassed about it. I would go to schools and teach the 10111 number, where people may not touch you on your body, tell children not to touch pills, poisons and firearms and why they should not make false calls. To this day, when some of the street kids see me they shout out, ‘Hello Superman’. Sadly the programme came to an end. Children really respond to a superhero.

What are the accident hotspots in Pietermaritzburg and where should people drive more cautiously?

Wherever you see breakdown trucks waiting, that’s where you should take care. Watch out for:

• The corner of Pietermaritz and Peter Kerchhoff (Chapel) Street

• Archie Gumede (Newport) and Reggie Hadebe (Richmond) Road

• Selby Msimang (Edendale) and Archie Gumede (Newport)

• Alexandra and Alan Paton (Durban) Road

• Allandale and Bhambatha (New Greytown) Road

• The N3 between Peter Brown and Liberty Mall

One of the downsides to Otto’s job is that he has to deliver bad news to family members of those who died in an accident. “It’s the worst thing to have to deliver that message, but it is very important that it is done properly. It is the beginning of a major trauma and different cultures and religions handle the news in different ways. Most times there is an initial silence from the person hearing about the death and then the emotion comes. We make sure there is someone to assist them before we leave.” He says the horror of an accident continues for years for the family as the case takes time to be finalised in court.

More than 14 000 people die on the country’s roads, 40 000 are seriously injured and 110 000 slightly injured in around 800 000 crashes each year. Crashes cost the country R56 billion per annum. Otto has attended to around 5 000 accident scenes himself, including over 90 bus accidents.

OTTO collects soft toys to give to children at accident scenes. If you can assist to provide these, please call him at 082 469 9231.

OTTO has been in the police force for over 26 years and moved to the city from Bulwer in 1990 where he started attending accident scenes.

His calling to the police force is part of a greater family in service at the SAPF and his wife Melanie, is a arrant Officer. He is delighted that his son Ryno (19) who has applied to the police force, could be the fourth generation to serve his country, as both Otto’s father and grandfather were police officers. Ryno began fighting crime at an early age. When he was eight-years-old he appeared in The Witness for having chased a housebreaker. Ryno told him to ‘Stop!’ and called for a neighbour’s help to apprehend the burglar. Ryno told The Witness at the time that he did what every policeman’s son would like to do — catch a robber.

Otto remains enthusiastic about the police force as a career for his son. “There are so many opportunities and so many directions to go.” Otto himself has received highly specialist training in the police and has attended many courses including plan drawing, photography and computer courses to help him in his reconstructions of accident scenes. He also gives lectures to others involved in accident work in the country.

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