GOOSE CREEK -- A car-versus-train wreck that occurred Friday while waiting on a funeral procession is just one of a multitude of unpredictable things that can go wrong when trying to escort dozens of mourning passengers through a maze of often impatient motorists, authorities say.
In the past six months, at least two officers across the country have died in wrecks while escorting funeral processions, including a 10-year veteran from Tuscaloosa, Ala., who was killed on Saturday.
"Those things can be inherently dangerous," Charleston police Lt. Chip Searson said Tuesday of funeral processions. "It relies so heavily on people not participating in the event."
Law enforcement agencies from Atlanta to Charlotte and in between have gone so far as to eliminate the service altogether as a result of liability and manpower issues. But don't expect to see departments here, in an area of the country steeped in tradition and history, end what many citizens consider a common courtesy.
"I think a funeral procession, from the community standpoint, shows respect for the value of a life of one of its citizens," said Jimmy McAlister, owner of James A. McAlister Funeral
Home in Charleston.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he understands the potential safety hazards of the escort duty. But Cannon said he considers it to be more of a risk to allow the processions to move along county roads with no supervision.
"We just view it as a potential threat to safe traffic movement," he said. "The liability issue with this is really a two-edged sword."
Goose Creek accident
Local authorities said they can't recall a serious incident occurring recently during an escort, except for the incident last week in which witnesses said a man was lucky to escape with minor injuries after his car was struck by a train while waiting near the intersection of Red Bank Road and U.S. Highway 52.
Curtis Lemarr was waiting at the red light on Red Bank Road with his windows up and the air-conditioning on Friday when he happened to notice the railroad arms descend behind him. He made sure he was clear of the tracks, but a car in the lane next to him was sitting on them with a train bearing down.
Lemarr rolled down his window and yelled to the man behind the wheel, who had pulled up on the train track when the light turned green because he didn't see the officers holding up traffic.
"I said, 'You better get off the track. There's a train coming,' " Lemarr said. "He kept honking his horn trying to get them to move. No one moved forward because there was an officer telling them to stop."
Authorities said Alphaeus Whitfield was one of two people injured when the train struck the back corner of his car, pushing his car into three cars stopped in front of him.
"If he had stayed right where he was before I told him the train was coming, he would have taken a direct hit," Lemarr said.
Goose Creek police charged Whitfield with obstructing a railroad track, but since then Whitfield's attorney and three witnesses have told The Post and Courier that the officer was at least partly to blame.
Kandi Smith said she saw the chain of events play out while stopped at the red light on U.S. 52, and felt the officers had plenty of time to allow some of the vehicles to move because the procession wasn't even in sight yet.
"I truly believe (Whitfield) was not at fault and was not doing anything illegal," Smith said. "I could have done the same thing. Thankfully, I was heading a different direction that day."
Raynelle Odom said she and her husband never did see the procession that led officers to stop their car, and that her husband "had words" with the officer immediately after the wreck.
Lemarr said the driver did put himself in danger by driving onto the track without ensuring that there was space to cross, but he said officers should share responsibility for what happened.
"They should have seen the train coming. They should have seen the car. And they had to hear him blowing the horn," Lemarr said. "They put a lot of people in danger by stopping traffic for that funeral procession with that train coming," Lemarr said.
The procession practice
Searson, traffic supervisor for the Charleston Police Department, has worked many escorts over the years. He said there are so many unpredictable and moving parts that they require preparation, community patience and a little bit of luck, but they ultimately are done to protect the public.
"I don't know if we'll ever get to a point where we'll stop doing them," Searson said.
The department used to use on-duty officers for escorts, but the demand became so high that the department allowed off-duty officers to do it. The city charges $60 per officer for the first two hours, with a minimum of three officers.
McAlister said his clients are most often happy to pay the fee because they know officers are underpaid and because they want to ensure that everyone arrives safely.
"The vast majority don't mind paying officers," he said.
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office provides funeral escorts at no charge, Maj. John Cark said. It requires 48 hours notice and provides one deputy for every five cars to ensure that the procession moves along safely, he said.
It is common practice in the area for funerals to begin with a church service and then have mourners proceed to a cemetery for a graveside service, Cannon said. With no escort, cars in the procession may tend to speed up, run red lights or make other risky moves to avoid being left behind, he said.
"If you just leave it up to people to get from Point A to Point B, it's a very disorganized and potentially dangerous situation," he said.
Mount Pleasant police Capt. Stan Gragg said the department provides escorts out of respect for the families' loss. "We do not perform high speed leap-frogging techniques and are generally done with the flow of traffic, obeying traffic regulations," he said in an email.
North Charleston police Chief Jon Zumalt said in an email that the department continues to work with area funeral directors to provide escorts based on manpower availability and in accordance with traffic laws.