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Lonely woman says she's a 'gawker' — addicted to chasing accident scenes

Sallie Gibson and her chihuahua, Little Bear, frequent accident scenes, like this car crash at East Bay Drive in Largo in June. “I don’t know why it’s so interesting to me,” she says.

DREW HARWELL | Times

Sallie Gibson and her chihuahua, Little Bear, frequent accident scenes, like this car crash at East Bay Drive in Largo in June. “I don’t know why it’s so interesting to me,” she says.

A 19-year-old lay on a stretcher in the weeds of a shut-down gas station, his blood dotting the curb.

His orange Isuzu Amigo, freshly crumpled on East Bay Drive, sat nearby. Firefighters knelt at the teen's side, checking his pulse. His friends shaded their eyes and shared hushed worries. Passing drivers slowed to watch, then sped away.

Paramedics would come soon to take the teen away, but someone had beaten them to the scene. She wore gray sweatpants, a saggy T-shirt and a locket of her late dog's ashes. Her name is Sallie Gibson.

Sallie approached with hunched, unsteady steps. Her chihuahua, Little Bear, panted quietly in her arms. Sallie ground her teeth. She stared.

What did it feel like, she wondered, to crash? Did the teen feel shocked? Was he scared? How do people in car crashes, with all that pain, lie so still?

To herself, she said a prayer.

The teen's friends approached Sallie, who stood quietly, lost in thought. "Did you see it?" they asked. Did you see the accident?

"No," she said, still staring. "I just saw it on the computer."

Sallie bought her first computer, a black Compaq laptop, six months ago. It helps her chase tragedy.

Using Web sites devoted to Pinellas County's emergency communications, Sallie, 58, can know in an instant where local police cars, ambulances and fire engines have been dispatched. Locals visit the sites to avoid traffic; journalists, to break news. Sallie visits to await the worst.

"Five or six hours a day, every day," she said, stooped over a puppy mouse pad in her cramped Largo home. "I watch while I'm eating dinner, before I go to bed, in the afternoon, between my naps.

"I'll go every day if there's something out there to go to. Sometimes there will be three accidents, and you don't know which one to go to. There's no set schedule for these kinds of things."

The calls with the most responding vehicles are the biggest and best, she said, though she has some preferences. She rarely goes to medical calls. They're too often routine, like 911 calls for hangovers. And she ignores fires. Watching a house burn can be exciting, she admits, but the smoke aggravates her emphysema.

So she waits for the road accidents — the head-on collisions, the multi-car crashes, the ejections. On those calls she can see the people, the patrol officers, the mangled wreckage. On some, she can hear the screams.

"It's kind of sick, isn't it? I don't know why it's so interesting to me. I really don't know," Sallie said, her thick glasses glued to the screen. "I don't like to see blood and guts. I'm just curious."

But after six months of scanner talk and years of chasing disaster, what's left to pique her curiosity? The ambulances always look the same. Death, for Sallie, is nothing new.

So what does she see out there?

"A lot of people gawk," she said. "I'm just a gawker."

• • •

Three years ago, when Sallie would leave her graveyard-shift job of mopping floors and cleaning broilers at Burger King, she would look for flashing strobes in the dawning light.

"I would follow ambulances as far as I could, until I lost them," she said. "I had to stop at lights. They didn't."

She looked forward to the chases. They gave an invigorating end to her lonely overnight shifts. Then she had a heart attack, and the ambulance came for her. To this day, when she gawks, she wonders — were these the paramedics who came for me? Will they have to come again?

She worries about herself. A pack-and-a-half of cigarettes every day for 38 years left her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an incurable lung condition that she expects will worsen, killing her. She loses her breath easily. She runs only in dreams.

And then there are the crippling panic attacks that stop her, make her shake and keep her from leaving the house. "I wouldn't wish them on my worst enemy," she said. "You feel like you're going to die."

Sallie turned to drinking to ease her nerves, a resort made easier by her alcoholic ex-husband. They fermented their own wine in 5-gallon tubs and whisked through six cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon in a weekend. Drunken numbness, she said, made trips to the grocery store bearable.

Sallie drank for the last time more than a decade ago, when her close friend entered her last months of terminal cancer. As her caretaker, Sallie knew she needed to stay sober.

The panic attacks continued, but she has found some respite. Even the exhausted can gawk.

"This stuff I can do, for entertainment," she said recently at the scene of a Clearwater stabbing. "I guess I get bored."

• • •

Years ago, Sallie watched her adoptive parents die. She has no siblings and no children. She lives alone.

She cares for five animals. Tater and Sweetpea swim in turtle tubs in the kitchen. Pumpkin and Peanut's birdcages sit near the urn of her shepherd mutt, Java. Little Bear mostly stays at Sallie's feet, licking through a hole in her shoe.

When she's awake, her home is rarely quiet. Scanner chatter mixes with The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and the Investigation Discovery channel. She rarely listens to music, she said, because it brings back bad memories. She laughs at inside jokes between dispatchers and perks up when officers tail a suspect.

"I get so excited," she said. "I feel like I'm chasing there with them."

Sallie's purple PT Cruiser covers an area from Park Boulevard to Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. When she arrives at the scenes, parking near the police cars and the TV vans, she doesn't intrude. If an officer asks her to stand back 5 feet, she'll walk 10. She doesn't bring a camera, just watches.

Sometimes, feeling powerless or sad, she tells people sorry.

"Some of this s--- just makes you wonder why," she said. "Life can suck sometimes."

She'll stay at a scene until the excitement is gone, or until the police move on, or until the bodies are taken away. New tragedies happen every day. So she goes home to wait.

But memories of some scenes don't fade so easily.

• • •

April 10, about 11 p.m.

Sallie's laptop is open. She's waiting. Suddenly, a call.

"On the scanner I heard that a car burst into flames when it hit a tree. They were talking about bodies lying in the road," she said. "When I heard that I knew it was gory. So that's when I grabbed my dog and said, 'Let's go.' "

Sallie drove 5 miles looking for the police lights. She parked at a scene more grisly than one paramedic had seen in decades. A Lexus carrying five high school boys crashed, spun into a tree and trapped its driver in burning wreckage. Passengers scattered across the roadway.

Officers warned Sallie about the bodies. She ignored them. If she couldn't handle it, she thought, she could walk away. The onlookers who got there first may have thought the same thing.

"All the kids, all the friends found out first. It was like one big class reunion," she said. "These kids were coming in groups, crying."

Hundreds stood next to Sallie and Little Bear, staring at the covered bodies. Children collapsed from the shock. Was this their first time looking at death? Sallie felt chills but kept quiet. She stared.

"Please, God, help them," she prayed, as she does at each scene. "Don't let them die. Help them. Take the pain away."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Lonely woman says she's a 'gawker' — addicted to chasing accident scenes 07/31/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 31, 2009 7:46pm]

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