By Zachary D. Roberts
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell and Laura Shunk
By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
At about noon, the convoy came to a halt in a fenced-in field sandwiched between Lookout Road and the Fort Polk airport. All engines were turned off, and Michael and the other soldiers were ordered to turn in all of their unspent ammunition. Michael had been riding in a five-ton wrecker. The gunner of a two-and-a-half-ton Light Medium Tactical Vehicle (LMTV) in front of his truck grabbed a drum of .50-caliber ammunition for his machine gun and headed over to the ammo drop-off point. As he did, a sergeant decided that Michael and his mates should clean the vehicles at a "wash rack" at the Lookout Road site.
Some of the soldiers grumbled that washing the vehicles there didn't make sense, since they'd only get dirty on the return drive to the base. One driver was so bold as to ask why they didn't just wash them at the motor pool, but, as he later told investigators, "I was told to drive on" to the wash rack.
That wasn't such a simple task: The crews had to remove the machine guns and their mountings and detach towlines that tethered some of the convoy vehicles together. Orders to do both tasks went out simultaneously. Michael's job was to remove the towlines. The gunner in the truck in front of his vehicle should have broken down his machine gun, but he was at the ammo drop. A private who specialized in repairing weapons was ordered to remove the gunner's machine-gun mount. It was incorrectly assumed that she had done this task before.
She removed the 16-pound weapon from its mount and propped it on the driver's-side floor, leaning the barrel against the dashboard. But as she attempted to remove the gun's mount, the weapon slid toward the passenger-side seat and accidentally struck and depressed the airbrake-release lever. The two-and-a-half-ton vehicle started rolling ever so slowly backward, down a slight slope. The truck commander saw what was happening and yelled at the soldier to re-engage the airbrake valve. But she didn't know how.
"The vehicle began to roll backwards," the soldier later told investigators. "I was thrown off-guard and panicked. There were people yelling everywhere. [The truck commander] kept yelling about a brake. I don't have a lot of experience with the mechanics of this vehicle, so I didn't know what I was looking for." (Later, she'd cry inconsolably in the arms of her husband, who was in the same unit. "It was all my fault," she wept.)
The truck was rolling backwards at a speed of only two or three miles per hour, several of the soldiers who witnessed it would later estimate. But Michael Fremer, flanked by two other privates, was unhooking the tow straps with his back to the moving vehicle. When the other soldiers saw the truck rolling, they yelled at him: "Move!" When Michael turned around, however, he froze—many of the onlookers later used that word to describe his reaction.
"I started pushing the truck because I noticed Fremer was frozen," said one of the two other privates with Michael behind the truck (his name was redacted from the report). "As I was pushing the truck, I kept yelling at him to get down. When the truck got too close, I went to grab him, but he would not move at all, so I had to get out of the way. When the truck started to crush him, all he would do is look at me."
Some described the two-and-a-half-ton truck actually bouncing off Michael and the five-ton wrecker. But most witnesses said he was pinned between the trucks until a soldier was able to drive the LMTV forward.
A soldier who had been an emergency medical technician in her civilian life was the first to give aid, but foam was already erupting from Michael's mouth. He sucked in a couple of labored breaths, then stopped breathing altogether. The former EMT tried without success to resuscitate him. An autopsy later revealed that the crushing injuries had damaged the sac around Michael's heart, basically causing it to drown in its own blood. By the time two Army officers knocked on the door of Eddie Fremer's Staten Island home that night, he already knew that his only child was dead. His ex-wife and her husband had been notified first, and Roy Janssen had then called Eddie, who was watching American Idol. "Ed, sit down," Roy had said to him. "Michael's gone."
"I couldn't comprehend it," Eddie recalls. "It was numbing. I said: 'Michael's gone? What do you mean?' "
Roy told him.
Eddie says he was still in a daze when the Army officers arrived a few hours later. He recalls their saying something about an accident that had happened while Michael and his unit were washing down their vehicles.
"I didn't sleep. You know, I did a lot of crying," Eddie says of the next few weeks.
Then frustration, mixed with curiosity and anger, started to take over. "I knew that Michael was gone," says Eddie, "but I didn't know the story."
So he made a few calls to Fort Polk and other Army posts, and he kept getting different stories. Not wildly divergent stories, but not the same one either—the tow strap broke, the brake malfunctioned. Eddie wondered, Which was it?