Military stories from past to present, both wars.

Death Defining Moments, the loss of Susan Bell

February 24th, 2011 Posted in The SandGram v1.0

Death defining moments in my life part one

We all deal with and confront death in different ways, and over the years I have seen my fair share of it, perhaps more than some others, giving me a giant callous on my soul.  They say bad things come in multiples of three and how true I found this. Twenty-four years ago this month, I experienced the unthinkable, the loss of my beautiful younger sister, Susan Elizabeth.  A second year student at the University of Virginia, she was 19, just thirteen days shy of her 20th birthday.

She died on a Tuesday night, but her body wasn’t discovered until early the following morning. I was lucky, in a sense, because we left on awesome terms and our last goodbye was a great one. The week prior we had made big plans to go skiing at Wintergreen Resort which was half way between both of our schools, and we had a whole day together that Saturday, just days before her death. I had been skiing since 7th grade and loved the sport whereas Susan had never been skiing before and she was excited since her boyfriend Marty was able to use his family cabin there. My girlfriend, Eleanor, and Marty were both expert skiers which, in a weird stroke of luck, allowed me to spend more time with Susan that day.

Being a “cheap” college student, to save money, Susan decided she was going to borrow her roommate’s skies (also an expert skier) instead of renting correct skies since the boots fit her feet. If you are a newbie on the slopes, you should start out with short skies, and fearless Susan began her first day on these super long downhill skies causing her to have a horrible wreck on the slopes. It really twisted her right knee pretty bad on Friday, and by the time I arrived on Saturday morning, she was nursing it with ice.

I was in a pickle. This was one of the most beautiful days to go skiing, but it would mean we would leave Susan alone at Marty’s cabin or else I would stay behind, spending time with my busted-up sister. I picked Susan.

Eleanor was great about it, and took off for the “black diamond” slopes with Marty while I rented a set of short skies for Susan. She felt good enough to go on the bunny slopes while I taught her how to snow plow back and forth across the gentle slopes with me skiing backwards in front of her so that I could instruct her. It was an awesome time. We laughed at her mistakes and triumphed when she could safely control herself down the mild slopes. This lasted until later in the day before we called it quits, and made our way to the restaurant for hot cocoa and chow.

Marty and Eleanor showed up later telling us stories about how they conquered the diamond slopes, making me a bit jealous, but it dissipated when I saw how Susan glowed as she talked about spending the day with her older brother and learning how to ski. We were invited to stay, but Eleanor and I had to head back to school that night due to a giant paper we were both working on, so we parted ways at Marty’s cabin. 

The car was running, the skis secured to the roof, and Eleanor was warming up in the right-hand seat. We had already said our goodbyes, and I was checking on the straps holding down our skis one last time when Susan opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. I walked across the fifteen feet to the steps of the cabin, and can remember the sound of crunching snow as I approached her.  She put out her arms and we embraced one last time. Susan kissed me on the cheek and said, “Drive safe, I love you!”  I hugged harder and replied, “Always. I love you too. Now be good to that bum knee.“

As we pulled away, Susan waved, and then disappeared back into the warmth of the cabin. Eleanor remarked, “You guys are really close, aren’t you?”  I crossed my fingers and replied, “Like this! I don’t know what I would do if she ever died.” Little did I know how much guilt I would later feel over saying those eleven words.

The next couple of nights were spent burning the midnight oil on a history paper I was working on in the library, and so it was too late to call Susan when I got back to my room to check on her knee. Wednesday began like any other day; breakfast with Steve, my roommate, followed by some history classes. I got back to the room around 10 a.m., and saw the answering machine flashing. Pushing the button, I heard the robo male voice tell me that I had six new messages. 

The first five messages were from friends at school that had heard on the radio about an accident at UVA (police released her name before contacting my parents since she was over 18), and the death of a student there named Susan Bell, and that they hoped it was a different girl. The sixth message was from Elizabeth, her roommate, asking me to call her. I dialed the phone in a panicked way pushing the wrong buttons and misdialing. Wrong number! I dialed again. The line would be busy and then ring with no answer, busy, and then ring. When I finally got through, Elizabeth said, “Mitchell, there has been a terrible accident, and I need you to talk to my father.”  Her dad was one of the doctors at UVA hospital and knew Susan well. 

His British accent was soft and calm over the phone, “Mitchell, there has been a terrible accident, a young girl fell off of the JPA (Jefferson Parkway) Bridge and died from the fall. Mitchell, it was your sister, and I identified her body this morning.”

Silence, then the flood of disbelief, my world was spinning around me. My knees gave way as I fell to the floor in a heap. “Please, tell me this is a mistake, PLEASEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!”  I screamed!

Elizabeth’s dad told me, “no,” there was no mistake, my sister was dead.

I remember the intense yelling in between sobs as I destroyed my room. I would like to think that I should have handled this in a better way but, no, your emotions take over as grief floods your mind. The guys across the hall came into my room to investigate the disturbance. When I was able to get out that my sister had died, they asked what I needed. “Get Steve, go find him and get him out of class. I need him” was all I could get out. They raced across campus and retrieved Steve, my closest friend at James Madison.  Steve’s mom, who was an Olympic ice skater in the 60’s, had died of cancer when he was a boy, and we had discussions on death all the time so I knew that he would be able to help me through this. 

We piled into my car, and took off over the mountain to UVA at over hundred miles an hour. Yes, driving was a major mistake, but Steve would have had to knock me out to snatch the keys away from me. He braced himself, and didn’t say a word, probably anticipating another accident that day. It normally takes 45 minutes on a good day to make that trek; we did it in fewer than 20.

By the time I arrived at the hospital, they had already sent her body to Richmond for an autopsy. Since she was over eighteen, they did not need parental permission which distressed our parents no end. Marty was in the hospital too, only he was in intensive care. His parents filled me in on what they knew. After partying at one of her sorority mixers, a drunk Marty and Susan parked in front of her house near the Jefferson Memorial Parkway, and walked across the old train overpass, perhaps to buy something from the all-night convenience store at the other end of the bridge. They stopped to smoke a cigarette in the middle of the bridge, maybe because her knee was hurting from the ski accident a few days before–we don’t know. 

There was a low retaining wall built back in the 1930s, and they were sitting on it when one of them lost their balance, falling backwards taking the other with them, twenty five feet to the railroad tracks below. Susan hit her head on the train rail and was killed instantly, but Marty was knocked unconscious when he hit the wood tie. He woke up a few hours later when the express train to New York was coming down the tracks. The train engineer saw Susan lying in a fetal position between the tracks and Marty next to her, but it was too late, even with max brakes being applied, trying to stop the long fast train. [To his credit, Marty apparently stayed with Susan to the end, trying to move her body off the tracks when the train hit him and ran over her.]

Marty now was in the balance between life and death, and he was fighting hard as the doctors worked on him. He ended up making it, but has no recall of the accident. Later, while in the ICU, all his warning bells went off due to his thrashing around. The staff rushed in to find that someone had left the TV on in his room, and the news broadcast telling of the accident was how he found out Susan was dead.

Meanwhile, the Arlington Police Department’s Public Affairs Officer, Tom Bell (no relation), took the death notification from the Charlottesville Police. Tom was in deep shock, for he knew my sister well since she had interned for the department the past two summers. He informed the Chief of Police who dispatched our neighbor, a close family friend and the Lt in charge of the Vice Squad, to notify my parents. They got my dad first, and then my mom in a police car, and raced off down the Valley of Virginia to JMU for my notification. They didn’t realize I already knew, and had left for UVA so it took them about two hours to catch up to me at the hospital (no cell phones back then). To this day I still cry at the end of the movie, “La Bamba,” because his brother and mother found out the same way, via radio, that Ritchie Valens had died in a tragic accident. It was all over the radio as I drove across the mountain, updates filled with speculation and debate on college-age drinking.

There is much more, but as I wipe the tears from my eyes, I think this will do for now.  It was the first of many deaths for me; each death more dramatic than the last.  It wasn’t until many years later when I met my wife that the callous on my soul began to soften.  They say it gets better over the years, but I believe it just makes your soul a bit more Teflon, adding another coating.

Semper Fi,


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