The U.S. Virgin Islands affords visitors all manner of colorful attractions and a conspicuous lack of predatory wildlife. But just as man has compensated for the occasional lack of creature comforts on the islands, he has also endowed the islands with manmade dangers, and an AK-47 wielding suspect is no less lethal to law enforcement on the island of St. Croix than it is on the mainland.
In the summer of 2012, a team of restaurant takeover robbery suspects landed atop the most wanted list of St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell. The escalating frequency and aggressiveness of the team's robberies necessitated Howell's deployment of saturated patrols.
Such heightened police activity can exhaust even the most committed police force. So Howell gave his officers a well-deserved night off before resuming the campaign in a particularly troublesome neighborhood.
On Saturday, Aug. 18, the officers continued their saturated patrols on a dark, moonless night. After making several arrests and a successful narcotics seizure, they received a call from the northern part of the island.
Robbery in Progress
"Robbery in progress. Shots fired." The MO matched that of the team that had been on St. Croix PD's radar: a peremptory warning shot followed by a demand for money. Since the robbery was committed in a relatively remote part of the island populated with few homes and fewer businesses, Howell knew there was a good chance of intercepting the suspects along the mountainous road that would lead the suspects from the shoreline community back to the center of the island.
Howell and his partner, Officer Elsworth Jones, sped along the darkened road beneath a thick canopy of trees. They had almost reached the crest of the winding road when a four-door vehicle sped past them from the opposite direction.
"That's got to be our suspect," said Howell. "No one drives their own vehicle like that."
Jones got on the radio to confirm the description of the suspect vehicle, as Howell made a quick turnaround and pursued the vehicle back down the hill. As the chief drove, he searched for signs of the suspects' taillights against the black terrain. When the taillights suddenly appeared, it was clear that the suspects had crashed into a ravine at the side of the road. Jones leaned forward to scan the dark terrain where the vehicle had crashed. As Howell parked the Tahoe, the pitch darkness betrayed no hint as to what would happen next.
For Howell, the muzzle flash was nowhere as blinding as the pain that came with it. His forearm suddenly exploded, pieces of his muscles and tendons sprayed throughout the Tahoe's interior.
Still more muzzle flashes came from the ground within feet of Howell's driver's door where the suspects had crawled away from their vehicle, climbed the embankment, and lay in wait for the officers. The interior of the Tahoe rapidly became a tableau of shredded plastic and metal and splattered blood and flesh.
Howell leaned forward in pain, his ballistic vest rode up on his torso. A second round tore through his driver's side door, passed through his seat, and struck him in the back. Like the first, this round passed through Howell before striking Jones in the face.
Jones keyed his microphone and yelled, "We're hit!" But the blood pouring from his face had so saturated the device as to render it inoperable. Dispatch never heard another sound.
The "kill zone" was rapidly, if incongruously, living up to its name, as the suspects were now firing on the Tahoe from the edge of the ravine. Howell stomped on the gas, but the main wire harness beneath the vehicle had been disabled by one of the suspects' rounds. The Tahoe was dead.
Howell quickly remembered a story that he'd heard while attending an ambush training seminar 16 years before. It was that of a driver who panicked when his armored vehicle came under fire by high-powered rifles. If he'd just accelerated, he could have gotten the vehicle out of the line of fire within 25 feet. But by remaining stationary, he'd allowed the suspects' continuous fire to cause the bulletproof glass to fail. Both the driver and his passenger guard were killed.
Down the Hill
Howell's eyes were, like Jones', filled with blood, but he still had his wits about him. He knew his injuries were life-threatening, but not immediately fatal. Feeling for the gears, he shifted the Tahoe into neutral and allowed gravity to roll the Chevy Tahoe downhill, gaining momentum with each yard.
Still the suspects maintained their fire.
Seventy-five feet down the hill, the Tahoe banked around a corner and with the power steering disabled smashed into a guardrail. Still, the maneuver had allowed Howell and Jones to get out of eye line of their attackers and the gunfire finally stopped.
Jones went right into fight mode and pulled out a long gun. If he'd been able to, Howell would have done the same. But the glow of a corner streetlight finally brought the extent of his arm's injuries into focus.
It's blown up, Howell thought. He was completely unprepared to see the rent flesh that had once been his arm.
Using his good arm, Howell pushed open the driver's door and rolled out of the Tahoe.
The sensation of his feet hitting the ground brought Howell a profound sense of relief. But he also knew that with each beat of his heart more precious blood gushed from his ravaged arm. Jones, too, was losing a tremendous amount of blood from the wounds to his face. Again Howell's training spoke to his survival.
Two out of three officers killed in the line of duty die from blood loss, he reminded himself. And if we don't apply direct pressure to our injuries, I'll know two more.
The voice of Dr. Carmen Williams, who had conducted trauma management training for his department just two months prior, resonated in his head.
If you look at your limb and you think you'll never use it again, put a tourniquet on it. A tourniquet may ultimately make that limb not useful, but if you're not going to get any use out of it anyway, you have to save your life before you save your limb.
Howell didn't hesitate for one second. He moved to the back of the vehicle, opened the hatch, and retrieved the trauma kit. When Howell put the tourniquet on the arm and tightened it down with Jones' help, he'd made the conscious decision to give up on his arm. He was not giving up on his life.
The stream of blood slowed to a steady drip and he went back to the passenger's side of his vehicle where Jones was covering the roadway in the direction of the suspects.
Jones' radio had been their only lifeline with dispatch, but like Jones, Howell found it so saturated with blood that it slipped right out of his hand. Giving up on this radio, he picked up the mic on the bay station radio and switched from limited range tactical frequency to dispatch.
"We're bleeding out," he said keying the mic. "Where are you guys?"
Two Minutes Out
Immediately the radio exploded with life. His team had heard the initial transmission and been sitting on pins and needles waiting to hear what happened next.
The sergeant from the SWAT team said they were just two minutes out. Two minutes at that point felt like a lifetime to the wounded law enforcement officers, neither of whom could be sure that the suspects weren't working their way toward them in the darkness.
Chief Howell decided to take the offensive instead of just waiting for the suspects to attack.
"Jones, I'm done getting shot here tonight. Switch that to full auto and we're going to light up that hillside."
Howell heard Jones switch his weapon to full auto. But just before Jones squeezed the trigger, there came the sound of an engine coming like a bat out of hell. It was the first unit, followed quickly by additional backup. The two minute estimation had been a blessedly liberal one.
A younger officer got out of the first unit and rushed up to Howell. Taking a look at Howell's arm, a look of absolute horror passed over him and the chief was momentarily worried the man might pass out. Instead, the man grabbed his weapon and turned like he was going to go up the hillside. Howell grabbed his shoulder.
"Let's wait for the SWAT guys."
As more units arrived, Howell found himself in the front seat of one of the SWAT officer's vehicles with Jones in the back seat. Driving like a madman, the SWAT officer steered towards the EMS vehicles that were parked at the bottom of the hillside.
"I've survived so far," Howell told the driver. "Don't get me killed now."
Rehab and Recovery
At the hospital, Howell asked the officers to contact Dr. Carmen Williams, who had conducted the trauma training and had become a good friend. Upon hearing that Howell was, in fact, one of the victims, Dr. Williams went to the hospital to assist two other surgeons with the emergency surgeries for Jones and Howell.
The last thing Howell remembered hearing was the doctor removing the sheet from his arm and saying, "Oh God, it's shredded."
When Howell came out of surgery he was told the bones in his arm had somehow remained intact, but the muscle and tendons above the bone were gone. He ultimately went through five surgeries, including muscle and tendon transfers and skin grafts. He lost 35 pounds and a great deal of muscle tone from the rigors of repeated surgeries. Just getting out of bed was an ordeal. The initial prognosis for his recovery was grim; there had been too much nerve damage to expect him to regain more than minimal mobility in his fingers and wrist.
Such pessimism was all the motivation he needed. Howell devoted all of his waking time toward his rehabilitation, learning to operate his fingers with half the muscle tissue. An avid swimmer prior to the shooting, Howell had to relearn the mechanics of a basic swim stroke. He told his doctor that he wanted to complete a triathlon.
"Everyone in therapy told me that wouldn't happen; that I had to have more realistic goals. For them to tell me that I couldn't do it was the motivation that I needed to do it," Howell says.
Howell went on to complete a triathlon and a one-mile open ocean swim race. At the triathlon, he was one of the first competitors to complete the swim portion of the race. "I may have an arm that may never function again the way it once did, but at least I'll know that it doesn't matter anymore. They may have damaged my arm, but all they did was fortify my spirit," he says.
The first round that hit Officer Jones left fragments in his left eye, his nasal passage, and his larynx. He suffered a fractured jaw from the second round, which remains embedded in his jaw. At presstime, he had not returned to duty.
Three suspects, two men and a teen, were charged with the shooting. At presstime, they were awaiting trial.
In response to the trauma management training that Dr. Williams conducted two months prior to the shooting, Howell had equipped all of his officers with trauma kits. As the daughter and sister of Boston police officers, Dr. Williams volunteered her time and spoke passionately about the need for trauma management. Howell cites the training he received and the trauma kit as key factors in his survival.
"All departments should mandate them. You need something that's going to stop blood loss, like QuikClot, tourniquets, pressure bandages. This should be a piece of equipment that's issued to every officer, just like a firearm, a TASER, or a pair of handcuffs. Officers should have it every day and know how to use it."
Editor's note: Chris Howell is available for speaking engagements. He may be contacted at his email address: [email protected]