Photo: Vince Taroc.
Pouring herself a cup of coffee, Teresa sat down and contemplated her future. To her fellow California Institute of Technology students and the faculty that taught her, it seemed like a future that portended great and wondrous discoveries for a 22-year-old already making her mark as a researcher and teaching assistant in organic chemistry.
But Teresa saw no such future, and where others found her cup running over with blessings, the graduate student found her life lacking. So she added something extra to her morning cup of joe, spoon-stirred it, supped its contents, then lay down.
When Teresa's body was discovered on a bright morning in May 1999, a piece of paper was found near her person.
Written on it was a single word.
Whatever your take on Teresa's suicide, she at least exhibited the foresight to attempt to spare others from being taken with her. That singular consideration gave emergency personnel the opportunity to evacuate her apartment complex and have a hazardous materials team decontaminate the scene of granular potassium cyanide without incident.
But first responders cannot always count on such considerations or know what they're up against. Even those with the benefit of prior warning may fail to heed it.
"We thought the scene was safe. We thought the incident was over."
Those were the words of Undersheriff Richard Perrin of Lake County, Mich., explaining how eight emergency services workers became exposed to toxic fumes while attempting to rescue a 28-year-old male who'd mixed household cleansers to asphyxiate himself. Unfortunately, their assumption that the incident was over was proven wrong.
"There was a re-mixture of the chemicals which started another chemical reaction and created more gas that we weren't prepared for," Perrin told Fox 17 news.
Like Teresa, the suicidal man had taken the time to leave a warning, plastering the windows on both sides of his vehicle with signs announcing the threat inside his car: "Do not open. One breath can kill," read one. "Do not enter without protective gear. H2S inside. Hazmat only. Hydrogen sulfide gas suicide," read another.
With some 90 percent of chemical suicides posting warnings on the windows of the cars and rooms in which they kill themselves, one would hope that officers and firefighters would think twice before opening doors and breaching windows in the face of such admonitions.
But Deputy Chief Jake Oreshan of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control says the incident illustrates an ongoing problem in the first responder community.
"Even when they have some kind of warning, cops will bust windows probably 85 to 90 percent of the time," Oreshan notes. "It's that visceral reaction of the first responder who's been conditioned to 'take charge' at the scene, and it's something that law enforcement agencies are going to have to deal with."
And rest assured, they will be dealing with it.