He was a man with a crack habit. He was also a military veteran, a kind, funny person who looked out for others. Whatever his struggles, say those who knew Isaac Palmer, it’s an outrage that he was killed June 2 by a giant tractor clearing brush under Interstate 5 for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“They look at it as an accident,” says Willie Jones, a homeless Real Change vendor who knew Palmer, 62. “If it was a teenager or someone who wasn’t homeless, they’d have a different outlook. But he was homeless, so it’s an ‘accident.’ That’s wrong.”
That’s what many in the homeless and social service communities are saying about Palmer’s death under an overpass at S. Massachusetts St. in Seattle’s SODO district. State transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald says the department is looking at what it can do to prevent future tragedies. But an agency spokesman says there’s little that WSDOT or the contractor on the job — Kemp West Inc. of Snohomish — could have done to prevent Palmer’s death.
On the morning of June 2, Palmer was sleeping in what he may have thought was a safe place: hidden in a tangle of blackberry bushes, tucked as far up the hill as he could get under the overpass, where the blades of an 18-foot tractor arm fractured his skull and ripped into his brain, killing him instantly.
His death isn’t an isolated occurrence. Last year, a garbage truck in Bellevue drove over and crushed a 53-year-old man after he had crawled out of a dumpster in which he was sleeping when it was emptied. Within the past 15 years, two other people were killed in Bellevue after being dumped from recycling bins into truck compactors, according to press accounts.
Even more common, homeless advocates say, are legs or arms crushed by trucks or cars driving through alleys.
Many homeless people sleep outside, Jones says, because they are turned away from shelters that are full. Others don’t even go to shelters because the crowded conditions expose them to illness, theft, or assault, says Sarah Dooling. She is a former social worker who interviewed Palmer and 80 other homeless people for a doctoral project at the University of Washington. That leaves many seeking an open-air place to sleep, often during the day, Dooling says, when there is more safety in the line of sight around them.
That line of sight didn’t save Palmer, nor did the efforts that WSDOT says it, the contractor and Seattle police took in conducting walk-throughs of the area to warn homeless campers in the four days prior to the work.
“It is just simple responsibility, no matter where you’re going to run a tractor, to walk through the place and eyeball it,” says Anitra Freeman, a longtime activist on homeless issues and member of Real Change’s editorial committee. “This was a death due to criminal negligence and the people responsible are the ones at the top of the ladder” at WSDOT.
WSDOT spokesman Stan Suchan disagrees, citing a current agency policy that tells contractors: “This project site is known for occupation by transients and is known to contain biological hazards. The worksite may include materials and wastes associated with transients, drug users, or litter,” including “violent and dangerous individuals.”
That, Suchan says, “is a recognition that we were aware there is a transient population in the area and that we wanted our contractor to recognize and address that.”
Personnel at Kemp West declined to comment or answer a faxed set of questions about the actions of two crew members on the scene that day. But Suchan insists it isn’t practical for WSDOT to have a procedure for every situation.
“Writing a specific policy or procedure isn’t something we do for every activity in a work zone,” Suchan says. “I can’t speak for [Kemp West],” but “I think they did everything that could be seen as reasonable. This was very loud equipment.”
“What I’m really concerned about from this accident,” says WSDOT chief Doug MacDonald, “is not that we ask ourselves where are the new procedures when you see blackberry thickets under I-5. The question is, ‘Are we dealing effectively with the Seattle Police Department, the Washington State Patrol and transient people?’” n
Women in Black will hold a memorial service for Isaac Palmer on June 21, 5 p.m., at the site of his death under I-5 at S. Massachusetts St.