"A literary thriller like no other...A hard-charging, edge-of-the-seat tale." -Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Darwin Minor travels a dangerous road. A Vietnam veteran turned reluctant expert on interpreting the wreckage of fatal accidents, Darwin uses science and instinct to unravel the real causes of unnatural disasters. He is very, very good at his job. His latest case promises to be his most challenging yet. A spate of seemingly random high-speed car accidents has struck the highways of southern California. Each seems to have been staged-yet the participants have all died. Why would anyone commit fraud at the cost of his own life? The deeper Darwin digs, the closer he comes to unmasking an international network specializing in intimidation and murder, whose members will do anything to make sure Darwin soon suffers a deadly accident of his own.
Release date: September 10, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 464
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The phone rang a few minutes after four in the morning. “You like accidents, Dar. You owe it to yourself to come see this one.”
“I don’t like accidents,” said Dar. He did not ask who was calling. He recognized Paul Cameron’s voice even though he and Cameron had not been in touch for over a year. Cameron was a CHP officer working out of Palm Springs.
“All right, then,” said Cameron, “you like puzzles.”
Dar swiveled to read his clock. “Not at four-oh-eight A.M.,” he said.
“This one’s worth it.” The connection sounded hollow, as if it were a radio patch or a cell phone.
“Montezuma Valley Road,” said Cameron. “Just a mile inside the canyon, where S22 comes out of the hills into the desert.”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Dar. “You’re talking Borrego Springs. It would take me more than ninety minutes to get there.”
“Not if you drive your black car,” said Cameron, his chuckle blending with the rasp and static of the poor connection.
“What kind of accident would bring me almost all the way to Borrego Springs before breakfast?” said Dar, sitting up now. “Multiple vehicle?”
“We don’t know,” said Officer Cameron. His voice still sounded amused.
“What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you have anyone at the scene yet?”
“I’m calling from the scene,” said Cameron through the static.
“And you can’t tell how many vehicles were involved?” Dar found himself wishing that he had a cigarette in the drawer of his bedside table. He had given up smoking ten years earlier, just after the death of his wife, but he still got the craving at odd times.
“We can’t even ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt what kind of vehicle or vehicles was or were involved,” said Cameron, his voice taking on that official, strained-syntax, preliterate lilt that cops used when speaking in their official capacity.
“You mean what make?” said Dar. He rubbed his chin, heard the sandpaper scratch there, and shook his head. He had seen plenty of high-speed vehicular accidents where the make and model of the car were not immediately apparent. Especially at night.
“I mean we don’t know if this is a car, more than one car, a plane, or a fucking UFO crash,” said Cameron. “If you don’t see this one, Darwin, you’ll regret it for the rest of your days.”
“What do you…” Dar began, and stopped. Cameron had broken the connection. Dar swung his legs over the edge of the bed, looked out at the dark beyond the glass of his tall condo windows, muttered, “Shit,” and got up to take a fast shower.
It took him two minutes less than an hour to drive there from San Diego, pushing the Acura NSX hard through the canyon turns, slamming it into high gear on the long straights, and leaving the radar detector in the tiny glove compartment because he assumed that all of the highway patrol cars working S22 would be at the scene of the accident. It was paling toward sunrise as he began the long 6-percent grade, four-thousand-foot descent past Ranchita toward Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Desert.
One of the problems with being an accident reconstruction specialist, Dar was thinking as he shifted the NSX into third and took a decreasing-radius turn effortlessly, with only the throaty purr of the exhaust marking the deceleration and then the shift back up to speed, is that almost every mile of every damned highway holds the memory of someone’s fatal stupidity. The NSX roared up a low rise in the predawn glow and then growled down the long, twisty descent into the canyon some miles below.
There, thought Dar, glancing quickly at an unremarkable stretch of old single-height guardrail set on wooden posts flashing past on the outside of a tight turn. Right there.
A little more than five years ago, Dar had arrived at that point only thirty-five minutes after a school bus had struck that stretch of old guardrail, scraped along it for more than sixty feet, and plunged over the embankment, rolled three times down the steep, boulder-strewn hillside, and had come to rest on its side, with its shattered roof in the narrow stream below. The bus had been owned by the Desert Springs School District and was returning from an “Eco-Week” overnight camping trip in the mountains, carrying forty-one sixth-grade students and two teachers. When Dar arrived, ambulances and Flight-For-Life helicopters were still carrying off seriously injured children, a mob of rescue workers was handing litters hand over hand up the rocky slope, and yellow plastic tarps covered at least three small bodies on the rocks below. When the final tally came in, six children and one teacher were dead, twenty-four students were seriously injured—including one boy who would be a paraplegic for the rest of his life—and the bus driver received cuts, bruises, and a broken left arm.
Dar was working for the NTSB then—it was the year before he quit the National Transportation Safety Board to go to work as an independent accident reconstruction specialist. That time the call came to his condo in Palm Springs.
For days after the accident, Dar watched the media coverage of the “terrible tragedy.” The L.A. television stations and newspapers had decided early on that the bus driver was a heroine—and their coverage reflected that stance. The driver’s postcrash interview and other eyewitness testimony, including that of the teacher who had been sitting directly behind one of the children who had perished, certainly suggested as much. All agreed that the brakes had failed about one mile after the bus began its long, steep descent. The driver, a forty-one-year-old divorced mother of two, had shouted at everyone to hang on. What followed was a terrifying six-mile Mad Mouse ride with the driver doing her best to keep the careening bus on the road, the brakes smoking but obviously not slowing the vehicle enough, children flying out of their seats on the sharp turns, and then the final crash, grinding, and plummet over the embankment. All agreed that there was nothing the driver could have done, that once the brakes had failed it had been a miracle that she had kept the bus on the road as long as she had.
Dar read the editorials proclaiming that the driver was the kind of hero for whom no tribute could be too great. Two Los Angeles TV stations carried live coverage of the school board meeting during which parents of the surviving children gave testimonials to the driver’s heroic attempts to save the bus under “impossible circumstances.” The NBC Nightly News did a four-minute special profile piece on this driver and other school bus drivers who had been injured or killed “in the line of duty.” Tom Brokaw called this driver and others like her “America’s unsung heroes.”
Meanwhile, Dar gathered information.
The school bus was a 1989 model TC-2000 manufactured by the Blue Bird Body Company and purchased new by the Desert Springs School District. It had power steering, a diesel engine, and a model AT 545 four-speed automatic transmission from the Allison Transmission Division of General Motors. It was also equipped with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) 121-approved dual air-mechanical, cam-and-drum brake system that had front axle clamp type-20 brake chambers and rear axle clamp type-24/30 and emergency/parking brake chambers. All of the brakes had 5.5-inch manual slack adjusters.
The driver seat was lap-belt-equipped; the passenger seats were not. Dar knew that this was standard design for school buses. Parents who would never allow their children to ride unrestrained in their family vehicles happily waved goodbye to their children each morning in buses carrying fifty children and no passenger belts or harnesses. The estimated gross weight of this bus, the passengers, and their camping baggage was 22,848 pounds.
The driver had—as the newspapers and TV reports had put it—“a perfect safety record with the district.” Blood tests taken at the hospital immediately after the accident showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol. Dar interviewed her two days after the accident, and her account was almost word for word the same as the deposition she had given the CHP the evening of the crash. She reported that about one mile from their starting point, on a slight downhill grade, the bus brakes had “seemed weird and mushy.” She had pumped the brake pedal. A warning light had come on, indicating low brake pressure. At that point, the driver told him, the grade had changed from the downhill grade to a two-mile uphill climb and the bus began to slow. The automatic transmission had shifted to a lower gear and the brake warning light went off and then blinked a few times. The driver said that she assumed the problem had fixed itself at this point and that there was no reason not to continue.
Shortly thereafter, she reported, they entered the long downhill grade and the brakes “just failed completely.” The bus began picking up speed. The driver said that she could not slow it by using either the service or emergency brakes. Brake odor was strong. The rear wheels began smoking. She said that she had overridden the automatic transmission and shifted down to second gear, but that did not help. She said that she had then grabbed the radio to call her dispatcher, but had to drop the microphone in order to wrestle the wheel to keep the bus on the road. For six miles she succeeded, shouting at the students and teachers to “lean left!” and “lean right!” Finally the bus had contacted the outside guardrail, run along it, and gone over the embankment. “I don’t know what else I could have done!” said the driver during the interview. She was weeping at that point. Her report agreed with the interview testimony Dar had taken from the surviving teacher and students.
The driver—overweight, pasty-faced, and thin-lipped—seemed stupid and somewhat bovine to Dar, but he had to discount his own perceptions. The older he got and the longer he worked in accident investigation, the more stupid most people seemed to him. And more and more women tended to appear bovine in the years since the death of his wife.
His people checked the driver’s record. The TV stations and papers had reported that she had “a perfect safety record with the district,” and this was true, but it was also true that she had only worked for the district for six months prior to the accident. According to DMV reports from Tennessee, where the driver had lived before moving to California, she’d been issued one DUI citation and two moving violations in five years. In California the bus driver held a school bus certificate (passenger transportation endorsement) issued two days before her employment by the district and had a valid California class B (commercial driver) license restricted to conventional buses with automatic transmissions only. The California DMV records also indicated that ten days before the accident, the driver had two violations: failure to provide financial responsibility and failure to properly display license plates. CHP records showed that because of these violations, her regular driver’s license had been suspended. It had been reinstated the day before the accident after she had filed an SR-22 (proof of financial responsibility) with the DMV. She had no outstanding traffic warrants at the time of the accident. She had received 54 hours of instruction that included 21 hours of behind-the-wheel training in a bus similar to the crash vehicle, but the curriculum had no requirement for mountain-driving training.
Dar’s report on the physical damage to the bus ran to four single-spaced pages. Essentially, the bus body had separated from the chassis, the roof had collapsed and crushed inward from just behind the driver’s seat to the third row, the left side had crushed inboard, buckling and fracturing all of the window-frame supports and popping the glass out all along the left side, and the bumpers were missing. The fuel tank had been damaged in several places, one rubber fuel line had been cut, but the tank hadn’t been breached and its guard remained securely fastened to the chassis.
Dar reviewed the inspection and repair orders for the bus and found that the brakes had been adjusted every 1,500 miles and that the vehicle was inspected on a monthly basis. Although the last inspection had been only two days before the accident and the mechanic had stated that he found the brakes slightly out of adjustment and had ordered them to be adjusted, there was no record of the mechanics’ having adjusted the brakes. Safety Board tests of the accident vehicle’s brakes showed that they had been out of adjustment on the day of the crash. Further investigation showed that the school district had only recently switched over from the CHP California Code of Regulations inspection form to a company-developed form (1040-008 Rev. 5/91), and the chief mechanic had checked both the “OK” box and the “Repair” boxes on the form, initialing the “Repair” boxes. But unlike the older inspection form on which the order for further service was written in a space under the “Repair” box, the chief mechanic’s written work order had been scrawled on the back of the new form. The five mechanics working under him—there was one mechanic for every eighteen buses, as per school district and industry guidelines—had missed the handwritten work order.
“Well, that’s it, then,” said the superintendent of the Desert Springs School District.
“Not quite,” said Dar.
Three weeks after the accident, Dar staged a reenactment of the accident. An identical 1989 model TC-2000 school bus, loaded with 5,000 pounds of sandbags to simulate the weight of the students, teachers, and their luggage, was brought to the summit of Montezuma Valley Road at the national forest area where the classes had carried out their “Eco-Week” overnight camping trip. The brakes of this TC-2000 had been misadjusted to precisely the degree of error found on the accident vehicle. Dar designated himself as driver of the test vehicle and accepted one NTSB volunteer to ride along to videotape the reenactment. The California Highway Patrol closed the highway for the duration of the test. School Board members were present at the exercise. None volunteered to ride in the test bus.
Dar drove the vehicle down the first grade, up the two-mile uphill section, and then down the long canyon road—the worst grade was 10.5 percent—finally bringing the vehicle to a full stop at a pullout ten yards beyond where the accident vehicle had plunged off the highway. He turned the vehicle around and drove it back to the summit.
“The brakes worked,” said Dar to the assembled School Board members and CHP patrolmen. “There was no brake warning light. No smoke or smell of burning brake linings.”
He explained what had happened on the day of the accident.
The bus driver had left the national forest campsite with both of her emergency parking brakes set. After the first downhill stretch where they could smell the brakes burning, the next two miles had been uphill. “Brakes give off an odor,” explained Dar, “when the brake drum and shoes reach temperatures above approximately 600 degrees Fahrenheit.” The teachers, students, and driver had smelled the burning odor during both the first couple of downhill and uphill miles on the return journey. The driver had ignored the smell.
The brake warning light had gone off briefly and then started blinking again as the bus approached the top of the last rise before the long descent toward Borrego Springs. The surviving teacher, sitting in the first row on the right side, had seen it blinking.
“There’s only one engineering explanation for the brake warning light to signal brake overheating during this portion of the trip,” said Dar. “The emergency brakes had been applied continuously from the time the bus had left the campsite parking lot.” In addition, he explained, the surviving passengers told of the bus “handling poorly” and “surging slightly” during the first two uphill miles of the trip. The driver had ignored all of these warning signs and had begun the long, downhill section of the canyon road.
Dar explained that on the day of the accident, he had noted that the front wheels of the bus were freewheeling but that the rear wheels were locked. He explained further that this type of bus had automatic brakes that would be applied without driver input when air pressure in the system drops below 30 pounds per square inch. The locked rear wheels had told him that low air pressure in the brake system had caused the automatic brakes to be applied, and their Safety Board tests had shown that the system had not leaked and that the air compressor was sound. But the automatic brakes could not stop the bus because they had been overheated prior to their application.
At this point Dar got back in the bus, set the parking brake, and drove away from the campsite again. A convoy of CHP vehicles and private cars followed.
The bus surged slightly going uphill. Both Dar and his assistant manning the video camera commented on tape that they could smell the brakes burning. CHP vehicles trailing the bus reported over their radios that they could clearly see smoke coming from the rear wheels. The brake warning light came on. Dar paused briefly where the accident-bus driver had paused, pumped the brakes as she had, and then started down the long incline.
The brakes failed 1.3 miles down the steep canyon road. The automatic brakes deployed but then also failed due to overheating. The bus began to accelerate.
When the bus reached 46 miles per hour, Dar shifted from D-3 to D-2, slowing it, and then shifted to D-1, causing the bus to lurch but also to slow quickly. Still moving 11 miles per hour, he selected a sandy patch of hillside on the inside stretch of the next curve and nosed the bus into it, bringing it to a halt with only the smallest of bumps. A second later, the armada of CHP cruisers and School Board members’ cars converged on the bus. Dar got in one of the highway patrol cars and they drove down to the accident site.
“The driver left the campsite with her parking brake on, which meant that both emergency brakes were set, thus overheating the entire system for the first two miles and dropping the air pressure below thirty psi,” he said to the crowd gathered around the point where the bus had left the highway. “The automatic brakes deployed, but their efficiency was low because of the overheating. Still, that should have been enough to slow the bus to below twenty-eight miles per hour. It did in this reenactment.”
“But you were going faster than that,” said the superintendent of schools.
Dar nodded. “I manually shifted from second gear into third gear and then to fourth,” said Dar.
“But the driver said that she shifted down,” said the president of the School Board.
Dar nodded. “I know. But she didn’t. When we inspected the transmission after the accident, it was locked in fourth gear. The Allison automatic transmission is programmed to automatically shift down in the event of such sudden acceleration. The driver overrode the automatic transmission and shifted into fourth gear.”
The crowd stared at him.
“The road marks here showed five hundred and fifty feet of striated, curved tire marks on the day of the accident,” he said, pointing. The marks were still visible. All eyes followed his pointing finger. “The automatic braking system, although degraded by loss of air pressure due to overheating, was still trying to stop the bus when it hit the guardrail up there.” Everyone turned to see the bent and battered guardrail. “The bus was going sixty-four miles per hour when it contacted the guardrail,” said Dar. “It was doing approximately forty-eight miles per hour when it left the road and became airborne about here.”
All heads turned back.
“The bus was in fourth gear when it hit the guardrail because the driver had selected that gear,” said Dar, “not because the transmission had failed or automatically upshifted. She was in a panic. After burning out the brakes, ignoring the burning brake odor and the unusual handling of the bus going uphill, then after ignoring the brake-pressure warning light and deciding to continue down the steep grade despite the fact that the brakes felt ‘weird and mushy’ at the top of the pass, the driver overrode the automatic transmission at approximately twenty-eight miles per hour and shifted into fourth gear by mistake.”
Two months after the accident, Dar had read in the back pages of a local paper that the driver had been found guilty of reckless driving resulting in the wrongful death of seven persons. She had received a one-year suspended sentence and her class B commercial driver’s license had been suspended indefinitely. None of the Los Angeles TV stations or newspapers that had hailed her as an unsung hero covered this aspect of the story in anything more than a passing mention, perhaps out of embarrassment at their earlier enthusiasm.
It was light enough to drive without headlights when Dar reached the accident scene. Cameron had been slightly off in his location; it was a little less than a mile from where the canyon opened out into desert. The twisting road showed all of the accoutrements of modern highway death: highway patrol cars parked along the shoulder, flares sizzling, cones set up, patrolmen herding what traffic there was up and down the left, uphill lane, two ambulances, even a helicopter buzzing above. Everything except wreckage.
Dar ignored the patrolman’s waving baton and pulled off on the broad right shoulder where the official vehicles were parked. Red and blue lights painted the canyon walls with pulsing light.
The patrolman strode over to the NSX. “Hey! You can’t park there. This is an accident scene.”
“Sergeant Cameron sent for me.”
“Cameron?” The officer was still pissed off at Dar’s disregard for his baton. “Why? You from Accident Detail? Got ID?”
Dar shook his head. “Just tell Sergeant Cameron that Dar Minor is here.”
The patrolman glowered but pulled a radio from his belt, stepped a few paces away for privacy, and spoke into it.
Dar waited. He realized that the CHP cops on the shoulder were all staring up at the canyon wall. Dar got out of the NSX and squinted up at the red rock. Several hundred feet higher, on a broad setback up there, lights glared and people and machines moved. There was no road or trail up that steep cliff to the setback, no way down from the cliff top hundreds of feet higher. A small, green and white helicopter lifted off from the ledge and dropped carefully into the canyon.
Dar felt his stomach sink as he watched the chopper land in a cleared area along the shoulder. LOH, he thought. Light Observation Helicopters, they had called them in Vietnam, lo those many years ago. Dar remembered that the officers loved buzzing around in them. Now they used this type for traffic reports and police work. Probably a Hughes 55.
“Darwin!” Sergeant Cameron and another patrolman jumped out of the helicopter and moved out from under the whirling blades in a half crouch.
Paul Cameron was about Dar’s age, in his late forties. The sergeant was large and quite black, barrel-chested, and sported a neatly trimmed mustache. Dar knew that Cameron would have retired years earlier if he had not started late in his police career. He had joined the Marines just when Dar was leaving the Corps.
There was a younger patrolman with him: white, in his early twenties, baby-faced, with a mouth that reminded Dar of Elvis.
“Dr. Darwin Minor, this is Patrolman Mickey Elroy. We were just talking about you, Dar.”
The younger patrolman squinted at Dar. “You really a doctor?”
“Not a medical doctor. A Ph.D. Physics.”
While Patrolman Elroy thought about that, Cameron said, “You ready to ride up and see the puzzle, Dar?”
“Ride up.” Dar didn’t bother to hide his lack of enthusiasm.
“That’s right, you don’t like to fly, do you?” Cameron’s voice only had two tones—amused and outraged. He was in his amused mode now. “But hey, you have a pilot’s license, don’t you, Dar? Gliders or some such?”
“I don’t like to be flown,” said Dar, but he grabbed his camera bag out of the NSX and followed the other two men toward the helicopter. Cameron sat in the front copilot’s seat and there was just room on the back bench for Dar and the young patrolman. They buckled in.
The last time I flew in one of these goddamned things, thought Dar, it was on a Sea Stallion leaving the Dalat Reactor.
The pilot made sure that they were all strapped in and then twisted one stick and pulled up on another. The little chopper lifted, fluttered, and then tilted forward, climbing for altitude at the mouth of the canyon before buzzing back, hovering a minute over the wide shelf of stone and sagebrush, and then settling down carefully, the rotors no more than twenty feet from the vertical rock wall.
Dar walked away from the thing with shaky legs. He wondered if Cameron would let him rappel down the canyon wall back to the highway when it was time to go.
“So is it true what the sergeant says about you and the space shuttle?” said Patrolman Elroy with a slight twist of his Elvis lips.
“What?” said Dar, crouching and covering his ears as the chopper took off again.
“That you were the one that figured out what made it blow up? Challenger, I mean. I was twelve when that happened.”
Dar shook his head. “No, I was just an NTSB flunky on the investigatory committee.”
“A flunky who got his ass fired by NASA,” said Cameron, tugging on his Smokey hat and securing it.
Elroy looked puzzled. “Why’d they fire you?”
“For telling them what they didn’t want to hear,” said Dar. He could see the crater here on the ledge now. It was about thirty feet across and perhaps three feet deep at the deepest. Whatever had struck here had burned, flared against the inner rock wall, and started a small fire in the grass and sagebrush that grew along the ledge. A dozen or so CHP people and forensics men stood and crouched near or in the crater.
“What didn’t they want to hear?” asked Elroy, hurrying to keep up.
Dar stepped at the edge of the impact crater. “That the Challenger astronauts hadn’t died in the explosion,” he said, not really paying attention to the conversation. “I told them that the human body is an amazingly resilient organism. I told them that the seven astronauts had survived until their cabin hit the ocean. Two minutes and forty-five seconds of falling.”
The kid stopped. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “That isn’t true, is it? I never heard that. I mean…”
“What is this, Paul?” said Dar. “You know I don’t do airplane accidents anymore.”
“Yeah,” said Cameron, showing strong white teeth as he grinned. He crouched, rooted around in the burned grass, and tossed a scorched fragment of metal to Dar. “Can you ID that?”
“Door handle,” said Dar. “Chevy.”
“The guys think it was an ’82 El Camino,” said Cameron, gesturing toward the forensics men in the smoldering pit.
Dar looked at the vertical rock wall to his right and at the highway hundreds of feet below. “Nice,” he said. “I don’t suppose there are tire marks at the top of the cliff.”
“Nope. Just rock,” said the sergeant. “No way up from the back side, either.”
“When did this happen?”
“Sometime last night. Civilian reported the fire about two A.M.”
“You guys got right on it.”
“Had to. The first CHP boys here thought it was a military plane down.”
Dar nodded and walked to the line of yellow accident-scene tape around the pit. “Lot of shards in there. Anything not belonging to an El Camino?”
“Bones and bits,” said Cameron, still smiling. “One person, we’re pretty sure. Male, they think. Scattered because of the impact and explosion. Oh, and fragments of aluminum and alloy casings that don’t have anything to do with the El Camino.”
“They don’t think so. Something that was in the car, maybe.”
“Curious,” said Dar.
Patrolman Elroy was still eyeing him suspiciously, as if Dar were a joke the sergeant was pulling on him. “And are you really the guy they named the Darwin Award after?”
“No,” said Dar. He walked around the crater, making sure not to get too close to the edge of the cliff. He did not like heights. Some of the Accident Investigation men nodded and said hello. Dar took his camera out of the bag and began imaging from different angles. The rising sun glinted on the many thousands of pieces of scattered, scorched metal.
“What’s that?” said Elroy. “I’ve never seen a camera like that before.”
“Digital,” said Dar. He quit shooting pictures and video and looked back down the highway. The entrance to the canyon was visible from up here, directly in line with the highway stretching out east toward Borrego Springs. He looked at the tiny viewfinder monitor on the camera and shot some stills and video of the highway and desert lined up with the crater.
“Well, if the Darwin Award isn’t named for you,” persisted the young patrolman, “who is it named for?”
“Charles Darwin,” said Dar. “You know, survival of the fittest?”
The boy looked blank. Dar sighed. “The society of insurance inv
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