How many times has Darnell Hartwell knocked on a door, waiting for someone to answer, knowing he is about to unleash the nightmare of a loved one's death?
More times than the 30-year-old can count.
As deputy coroner of Berkeley County, he takes calls 24 hours a day, often to investigate suspicious and violent deaths that offer no second chances.
"It gets very bad," Hartwell says. "It's never expected. It is always, always a tragedy when we tell them their 19- or 20-year-old was just gunned down."
While others try to steer youth down better paths, Hartwell sees them after those avenues have closed forever.
He recalls a teenager whose friends threw her a surprise birthday party at a club. The girl's mother didn't want her to go. She went anyway, and was killed in a shooting, dead on her birthday. Hartwell had to tell the girl's mother.
He often wonders, what if?
What if a teenager had thought of the risks before drinking and driving? What if a child's parents had been more involved, set firmer rules?
What if someone hadn't pulled the trigger or sold the crack cocaine?
"I'm left with a job of letting families know that their child or mommy or daddy isn't coming home no more," Hartwell says.
He began his career as a firefighter, then joined the Berkeley County Rescue Squad.
He was in his early 20s, extricating people trapped after horrific car wrecks and handling other rescues, until becoming deputy coroner.
He's learned much over that decade, including that calls after midnight often involve the tragic results of bad decisions.
One time, when he went to notify a family of a death, the teenage son came home from partying at 1 a.m. The mom came home at 3 a.m.
It's a hot topic at Hartwell's work and at his church. "Parents are not being parents and are not giving that guidance," he says.
Hartwell is a father himself with children ages 13 and 3. He knows the days are coming soon when his older child will be driving, and making those critical decisions.
He knows one bad decision can be the last.
"When I get people," he says, "there ain't no turning around."
Notice about comments: