“Six Feet Over�

The following is an expanded version of Item 6 on my “Top 10 Unique Things I’ve Done� list:

I’m often told that I have one of the most unique jobs there is, but it isn’t exempt from a characteristic common to any other job. Even death investigation becomes routine to a certain degree after an extended period of time. Eventually, the only scenes that are really exciting are those where the situation is new or at the very least it’s a variation of a situation already experienced.

It’s necessary to point out that aspect of the job to help explain how excited I was the first time I was called out on a fully suspended hanging. Prior to that call, I had worked two-dozen or so hanging suicides, but in each case the individual had some part of their body in contact with the ground, floor, or other object.

Many people envision a scene from an old western when they picture a hanging—a gallows with a sudden stop at the end of a rope designed to result in immediate death. As a result, most people I have talked to about hangings are surprised to learn that so many bodies are found in a standing, kneeling, or sitting position. Loved ones of the deceased are especially surprised to learn that a hanging rarely involves a broken neck or a collapsed windpipe.

To explain the mechanism of death, I’ll use one of the more common scenarios I have investigated. I’ve worked at least six hangings where the individual committed suicide using a belt ligature fastened to a clothes rod in a closet. In each of these cases, some part of the lower body was in contact with the floor.

Once the ligature was in place, the individual passed out as a result of a lack of oxygenated blood to the brain. At no point was there enough force to result in a fracture of the vertebrae or the hyoid bone nor was there any restriction of the airway.

The point at which the person loses consciousness is no different than in a “sleeper hold.� The major difference between “choking someone out� and a hanging is that there is no release of pressure on the neck allowing blood to flow into the head again.

Once the person has passed out and “gone limp,� the weight of the body continues to hold the neck against the ligature—continuing to occlude the arteries and subsequently to deprive the brain of oxygenated blood. Oftentimes, the lungs are getting plenty of oxygen, but there is no longer a means for transporting it above the ligature. The body begins to convulse with agonal respirations, but eventually brain and cardiac function cease altogether.

In this particular case, two teenagers were walking through a wooded area when they spotted a body hanging six feet above the ground from a tree limb. At first they thought it was a practical joke or perhaps a prop left over from some Halloween “Haunted Forest� attraction, so they ignored it. One of the boys told his father who was curious enough to see it for himself. He immediately called 911 when he realized it was no fake.

After documenting the scene and obtaining what little information there was to obtain on an unidentified body in the woods, the issue of removing the body came up. Needless to say, volunteers are hard to come by when tree climbing is required. Officers at the scene volunteered to call out the local fire station to help get the body down. Presented with the options of waiting for the fire department to show up with a ladder or climb the tree, I elected to climb the tree. I wanted to reserve calling in a favor from the fire department for when I really need them.

I scrambled up the tree to a point just above the limb on which the rope was tied. I was afraid that adding weight to the same limb that the deceased was suspended from might prove doubly fatal, or at the very least incredibly painful for one of us.

I was a little unnerved at the fact that the officers on the ground where now standing a little further back than they previously had been. I pulled out my trusty “Leatherman� pocket tool and prepared to cut the rope.

One of the officers—to the poorly masked dismay of the others—asked if I wanted them to catch the body.

I knew the ground would take care of that, so I declined the offer but added, “If you’re going to catch anything, I’d rather it be me.�


5 Responses to “”

  1. May 5, 2005 at 3:00 am

    …am I supposed to be laughing….? cause I am..
    and don’t you just love leathermans..

  2. May 6, 2005 at 7:39 pm

    I agree. That’s funny. It is the same kind of humor we use at work, dealing with really sick people all day long.
    We each other, not patients!

  3. May 7, 2005 at 5:55 pm

    I love this blog! I think in any job where you deal with death there is “gallows” humor…and it’s all the more appropriate when you are dealing with hangings. 🙂

  4. May 7, 2005 at 10:11 pm

    Now there’s a man who can think on his feet :-).

  5. 5 Judy Chant
    March 4, 2006 at 4:00 am

    Douglas, I love your humour as only an retired nurse can.
    May you remain “flexible” and “atheletic”. The police you work with remind me of some I met who coming from different jurisdiction areas gently prodded a body backwards and forwards across a narrow stretch of a river in Australia so as to avoid being the ones who had to pull the quite decomposed body out of the water.

    The “losers” had to accompany the body to the Emergency Dept. where I worked to have a doctor formally declare the poor sod dead.

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