A small hole torn in a work shirt is a constant reminder of how emotionally exhausting it can be to do the job of coroner while at an accident scene involving young people.
"I was wearing my coroner's shirt at the scene of a fatal traffic accident where a 14-year-old girl died. While trying to remove her body from the car, her hand got caught and tore a small hole in my shirt," Clay County Coroner Rick Swearingen said as tears filled his eyes. "There was so much life ahead for her and it all ended in that moment with an unwise decision."
When he found the hole later, Swearingen just couldn't sew it up.
"I couldn't forget the way I found her. I didn't want to forget," he said. "Every time I have to pronounce another child dead at the scene of a traffic accident, it tears another hole, not in my shirt, but in my soul."
Swearingen admits his job has made it hard to go to sleep and even harder to get up, "especially when the phone rings in the middle of the night."
Since becoming coroner in 2001, Swearingen has pronounced the deaths of 36 people at fatal traffic accidents.
"The numbers can be deceiving, because they reflect only people pronounced dead at the scene of fatal accidents within Clay County," he said. "That doesn't include the deaths of Clay County residents who die in fatal accidents in other counties, or victims who die after being transported to the local hospital or are transported or airlifted to a medical facility out of county and pronounced dead after arrival."
Twelve of the 36 deaths were people 21-years-old and younger.
"The 19-21-year-olds might not be considered children by some people, but they're young, prone to rash decisions and they're still kids with a whole lifetime in front of them," Swearingen said. "The accidents, all the young people, they're all burned into my memory. Their deaths won't leave me, even after I leave this job."
Swearingen admits being coroner has had an affect on his family.
"I have six kids myself, and unfortunately, I probably teach them in a more harsh way then most parents about making reckless decisions," he said. "I just don't tell them that some decisions are stupid, I show them the results of stupid decisions."
Swearingen admits to making reckless stupid decisions when he was a young driver.
"I was young once. I also thought I was bulletproof," he said. "Kids aren't stupid. The decisions they make can be stupid. They just don't understand that once a stupid decision is made, the devastation of the decision just doesn't affect them, it affects everyone around them."
With Northview High School's Prom activities tonight, Clay City students preparing to attend their Prom next Friday and graduation ceremonies and after parties next month, this is the time of year when mothers and fathers worry about their children.
Swearingen said members of law enforcement and emergency response personnel also worry, which is why many officers volunteer their time to talk to students in the classroom and participate in events like the recent Mock Accident at Northview.
"It is frustrating to think that some kids won't get the message we are trying to tell them. We just want them to arrive safe and alive," Swearingen said. "But there are times they don't. Someone has to notify the parents when children die, it's not an easy job for anyone."
During his time as coroner, Swearingen has learned that it has to be done with dignity, honor and respect.
"I've learned so much about myself this past years. I don't want to pronounce the death of another child. But, if I could, I'd continue being coroner because I wouldn't wish this job on anyone," he said. "They say ignorance is bliss and all I really wanted in life was to be blissful. But the faces of all the young people whose lives were tragically cut short that I've seen these past years, they will go with me when I leave this job. I will never forget them."