WARNING: This article contains distressing information. If you need support for yourself or someone you know, you can contact:
* mental health support organisation Te Kainga O Pa Taunga on 20162, or 50633 in emergencies.
* counselling centre Punanga Tauturu Inc on 21133, or 55973 in emergencies
When Rangimarie William gets ready for her night out patrolling the island, she prays everything goes well.
The 26-year-old Cook Islands Security officer hopes for a quiet night where the whole island is safe and sleeping in peace.
On Saturday last week, she began her shift at 8pm hoping for the same. She looked forward to finishing her duty at six in the morning and spending some quality time with her family.
But things didn’t go as she anticipated. What she dealt with that night left a scar that would probably last a lifetime.
After midnight on Saturday, William while inspecting some properties made a pit stop at Turou Bakery which is one of Cook Islands Security’s clients.
She received a call from her boss Chris Denny at around 1am Sunday morning, telling her of an accident at the Nikao seawall. It was one of three motorbike crashes that occurred within just half an hour – one of which resulted in the death of a 22-year-old male.
“I realised the distance from where I was and the seawall and thought the ambulance will be there before me.”
William stuck to her patrolling route through Titikaveka – when she came across the fatal crash near Te Puna Motors.
“First thing I saw, the motorbike facing the wrong way and two people on the road. One person was just holding his head and badly bleeding,” William says, holding back her tears.
“I just parked the car, grabbed the first aid kit and ran to the scene. The person who was holding his head, I asked him not to move as he might have some broken body parts which would aggravate.
“I was kind of just going with what I know, what I felt was right at that moment, not knowing the extent of his injury despite the fact he was bleeding all over his face.”
Instead of letting him choke on his blood, William decided to put him in the recovery position.
But when she turned him to his side, what she saw made her realise there was not much she could do.
“I felt like breaking down emotionally. But I gathered myself together and did whatever I could to save him.”
The ambulance and police arrived about 10 to 20 minutes later, she says.
But it was too late.
“Although I put a patch on the back of his head to try and at least do something to stop the blood, it didn’t make any difference. The blood was bleeding through his nose, mouth and ears.”
When the nurse on duty arrived and saw the extent of the injury, she told William that there was nothing she could have done to save the deceased.
“It kind of made me a little unstable, emotionally. I thought I tried and at least did something but somehow not really knowing if he actually died before you arrived at the scene or did he die right in front of your knees with your hands on his chest trying to revive him is something you never want to experience.
“I was angry, I didn’t know whether because of the accident or I couldn’t do more to keep him alive.
“I wanted to cry that day but then I was the only authority there to control traffic, to see the extent of injuries and try and do whatever I can to save them.”
There were people there, she says, but nobody came to assist.
“I felt angry about the fact that I expect the older citizens to come and assist us but they just stood on the side and just watched, while we tried to save a life of a person in front of them.”
William bottled up her emotions and continued her shift until the sun rose. It was only then that she realised her uniform was covered in blood.
She went home, washed herself up and hugged her mother, breaking down in tears.
“Everything just came off and it was not a good feeling.”
The next three days William spent her time off from work with her family, who tried their best to keep her occupied and take her mind off the death.
“But every time I’m by myself I keep thinking about it … I could have done this or that, just being limited on knowing what I could have done really hurts me.”
Chris Denny, the director of Cook Islands Security, says he is now getting their staff certified as first responders to deal with road casualties in Rarotonga. And when they go out, they pack a first aid kit.
These are security officers. They are not paid to attend to victims of road accidents, he says, but they feel obliged to do so as part of their patrols around the island.
“We are paid to look after our clients, their property and their welfare but when it comes to a matter of life and belonging, what you would expect us to choose?
“We are thankful that we have understanding clients who pay us to patch up people on the roads. It’s affecting our job, not only mentally but also operationally, because we have to spend a couple of hours away from the service we are being paid for.”
In the past six months, he says, there has been an increase in serious motorbike accidents. In the past two months, they have attended to two where the victims have died on the spot.
“I think the biggest thing is that when you walk away from that accident, you keep thinking did you make an honest attempt to help this person, or did I stuff something up and he died because I didn’t know enough?
“It’s that guilt especially if they pass away. That’s where the trauma really lies that this person maybe wasn’t given enough help at the scene before the ambulance turns up.”
Trauma from tragic deaths haunts police officers, too.
It was October 2016 that kidnapper Christopher Rimamotu was allowed out of prison on work release. He collected a .22 rifle from his shipping container – and killed his ex-wife and her partner, before taking his own life.
The violent shooting incident left the Rarotonga community shocked and some of the police officers who attended the case seriously affected by the traumatic experience.
In the aftermath, police received the assistance of external counselling from New Zealand Police Counselling, as well as follow-up sessions.
One officer resigned following that tragedy.
Trevor Pitt, the police spokesperson, says they have mechanisms in place to deal with the distress of tragedies, to ensure the experience doesn’t affect their personal lives.
“Overall, the impact of trauma on police is quite significant – it can be deep and long-lasting. Some have experiences that have lasted weeks. The effects are nightmarish,” says Pitt.
“I think the public should appreciate what pressures the police must deal with every day. It’s important to understand that officers contend with stress and trauma as a result of a range of incidents where death is involved.”
The road death toll in Rarotonga stands at six. Per capita, the Cook Islands have one of the worst rates of road deaths in the world.
But officers have also been confronted with homicides, suicides, drownings, sex crimes, crimes against children, as well as discovery of deceased following natural causes.
The impact does not end at the scene of an incident, like a road fatality, Pitt adds.
“Police are trying to do their job as professionally as possible while also managing the fatality in terms of witnesses (who can also be traumatised), crash scene forensics, and the sensitivities of talking to the family concerned about losing a loved one so tragically.
“These are hugely difficult tasks, which impact on the minds of officers. As part of their job, police at times also attend a post-mortem, which can be stressful but a necessary part of some investigations.”
The police officers themselves can relate varied accounts of dealing with serious incidents. All of these situations present significant impacts on police, which in many cases, training cannot adequately prepare them for, says Pitt.
“Their capability of managing stress and trauma can be influenced by their own individual character but even the most experienced staff will agree with the benefits of counselling and talking with a professional. There needs to be a release. Trauma can become internalised and bottled up and the counselling provides that avenue.
“The officers also understand they ought not to take their work home with them as the stress and trauma could infect their own personal family life.
“Years ago, in a different era, it was commonly known that some officers would resort to alcohol as a means of numbing the impacts.
“In more recent years, the Police leadership is more conscious of the need for officers to have access to professional help. There is a policy in place to provide for a stand-down period away from duty and access to counselling. These are directives from the Commissioner.”