The second-toughest task Virginia State Trooper Robert Pinkard ever faced was waiting with the families of six men who went down in an airplane in Spotsylvania County last month as rescuers searched for survivors.
The hardest was telling the families that the men -- close friends who were returning from an annual fishing trip in North Carolina -- had died in a crash.
"A few days lapsed after the loss of the plane that allowed them to begin to realize that the situation might not end the way they hoped," said Pinkard, a police chaplain. "It was really hard."
Local state troopers are responsible for notifying the family members of accident victims within Prince William County when the incidents are investigated by their agency. The troopers could also be called if the accident occurred outside the county but the victims or their families are local residents, said spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell.
In accident cases handled by Prince William County police, Chief Charlie T. Deane said, a police chaplain and officers involved in the investigations notify families. Sgt. R.A. Dye, of the Manassas Police Department said a police chaplain and a supervisor make notifications for that agency.
State troopers said notifying the loved ones of dead accident or crime victims is the most difficult part of their job. Troopers said they often astonish the recipients of the death notifications by breaking down and crying with them.
"There were some tears there," Pinkard said of his experience with the families of the six friends. "That much pain affects you. I had lost my father about 18 months before this happened, so I knew what they were going through."
Trooper Jeannette Galbraith was assigned to a recent case in which an elderly woman was killed when a truck struck her car. Though she has done more than 10 death notifications, she still remembers the first, when she had to tell the family of a 27-year-old man that he had been killed when he hit a tree while driving drunk.
"I remember my heart just sinking," Galbraith said. "I thought, 'How do I tell these people that their son is never coming home again? How do I tell them there's a void in their life now?' "
State troopers receive instruction on delivering death notifications, including how to be empathetic and how to work with representatives of the clergy and close friends to help the family deal with their loss, said Sgt. Michael E. Bolton, 36, an instructor at the Virginia State Police Academy in Richmond.
If the person to be notified is old, medical personnel may be asked to come along in case of heart attack, officials said.
Once a death is announced, the troopers usually stay with the families until they appear to accept the news, said Trooper R.A. Black, who has done 50 notifications.
"If they need to scream, I let them scream. If they need to cry, I try to offer them comfort," said Black, who is assigned to the Independent Hill/Manassas office. "Some of them need to strike out at someone, and I will let them do that, because I know it's just the anger at the news; they are not attacking me."
Black said he was first assigned a death notification about nine months into his career as a young trooper of 22. He was told to tell a woman -- who reportedly had a heart ailment -- that her 17-year-old son and only child had been killed in a car crash.
After enlisting the aid of the woman's neighbor, Black tried to break the news gently.
"She originally just froze, then she wanted to deny it," Black said. "Then she almost had a heart attack, with chest pains and shortness of breath. But she was okay. It was only her reaction to the shock."
Another time, Black was called in when three generations of a family were killed in a plane crash. The notification was especially difficult, he said, because the people on the plane -- grandparents, parents and an infant -- had not yet been positively identified when he spoke with their family.
"While I was telling them there was a broadcast on their radio about the accident," said 33-year-old Black, a father of two. "I remember thinking that I had to keep talking to keep their attention so they wouldn't notice the news on the radio."
In December 1988, he worked an accident in which a man who had flown up from Florida to drive his elderly sister and her husband to his home was killed while attempting to fix a tire on the side of Interstate 95.
"The woman had a really hard time because she blamed herself for the accident," said Black. "She kept saying, 'If only I had flown down, he'd still be alive.' I spoke with her several times just to try to make her understand that the accident was not her fault."
Galbraith, a former nun, said she believes her religious background helps her offer comfort to grieving families whom she has notified of a loved one's death.
"As in church work, I believe that in police work you have to remain sensitive and have compassion for people," she said.