This Man Loves Car Wrecks More than Anyone Else in the World

All about plutonium, Jayne Mansfield, destiny, and A. O. Pipkin.

If Karen Silkwood hadn’t discovered that the bologna in her refrigerator was contaminated with plutonium and then died in a mysterious wreck, I would never have ridden between San Angelo and Eden with A. O. Pipkin, Jr.

Pipkin is the sole owner and employee of the Accident Reconstruction Lab of Dallas. His business is investigating traffic accidents to determine why and how they happened. Although the accident he was now investigating had occurred only five days earlier, Pipkin frequently finds himself called on a case weeks or even months after the event; yet his investi­gations rarely suffer from such delays. He does not depend on eyewitnesses, even when they are available. Over the years he has come to regard police acci­dent reports as interesting curiosities but far from the gospel. His clients are in­surance companies, truck lines, attorneys trying personal injury suits, and, in the case of Karen Silkwood, a labor union.

Pipkin’s specialties are head-on colli­sions (“I love ’em”) and wrecks in­volving trucks. The wreck near Eden had been a head-on crash between a truck and a late-model Cadillac. The truck driver was not badly injured but the occupants of the Cadillac, an elderly man and his wife, were both killed. Though no damage suits had been filed yet, the food corporation that owned the truck had hired Pipkin to investigate just in case. His credibility and skill as a trial witness are as important in his work as his expertise in investigation. In twenty years of work he has investigated over 2000 accidents and testified in more than 300 trials.

Pipkin and I flew from Dallas to San Angelo, rented a car, and drove over to the truck dealership that was storing the wrecked truck in its back lot. A. O. car­ried all his equipment in a fat gray attaché case fitted with a single piece of thick foam rubber in which he had cut small compartments to hold the tools of his trade: a Pentax camera and lenses; a pocket transit-compass which he used to record the angles of intersections and the uphill or downhill grade at the scene of accidents; a tape measure; a folding tripod; a stopwatch for measuring ac­celeration times; something he called a “clampod” which served the same func­tion as a tripod but clamped onto tree limbs or windowsills or whatever else was handy; a Rola-tape for measuring distances across pavement; and, folded neatly in the top of the case, a bright orange jumpsuit Pipkin dons when he has to crawl under, over, or through wrecked vehicles. Pipkin is about 5’10”, round-faced, round-bellied, and thick-­legged. In the nylon jumpsuit he looks a little like an orange balloon.

We were first met at the dealership by a tall, palsied man who was chewing on the short stub of a thin cigar. He was a photographer who eked out a living by taking pictures at the scene of wrecks on West Texas highways. When we examined the truck I saw a sticker he had placed on the passenger door: ‘‘ NOTICE. Pictures of this accident were taken when and where it happened. If you want pictures call…” He wanted Pipkin to see his photographs of the wreck, which were so overexposed as to be nearly useless except for showing the final positions of the vehicles. “There weren’t any skid marks,

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