A speeding, airborne car slammed into a pole on Route 30 near the border between Baltimore and Carroll counties, killing one girl instantly and trapping another in the wreckage. Michael J. Fischer, then a 19- year-old volunteer firefighter, answered the call and cradled the dying teen-ager.
"I literally held that girl for maybe an hour and a half, and she died in my arms," Fischer said in an interview last week after he was named commander of the state police Westminster barracks. "At that point, at my age, it was a life-altering experience."
Initially inspired to pursue a career as a doctor, Fischer instead ended up earning a national reputation as an expert on the hows and whys of car crashes. And now, after rising to the rank of major in more than two decades in the state police, he is set to take charge of a unit that patrols Carroll's roads - and serves as the county's primary law enforcement agency.
Fischer, 46, said he is flattered that the agency had enough confidence in him to assign him to command the state police's biggest and busiest barracks.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge of the diverse law enforcement responsibilities at the Westminster barracks - but I'm going to emphasize my traffic-safety roots," he said.
Fischer, who lives in Hampstead with his wife, Linda, and 19-year-old son, Scott, added, "I'm excited to work in my home county for the first time."
He is a former Trooper of the Year and a nationally known teacher of motor vehicle accident investigation techniques.
"He's been a very strong traffic-safety advocate," said Sandy L. Richardson, a senior highway safety specialist for the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Safety Administration. "We have depended upon his expertise to serve on curricula development teams for traffic safety programs and we rely on his professionalism and expertise in various traffic safety programs."
First Sgt. Carl D. Miller, who worked with Fischer in the Field Operations Bureau from 2000 until last year, when Fischer became commander of Motor Carrier and Automotive Safety Operations, described his colleague as "an expert at traffic safety."
"In my opinion, he's one of the most capable individuals in this job," Miller said.
Fischer estimates that he's taught more than 4,000 officers in every state east of the Mississippi River. But he took something of a roundabout route in joining the state police - and was even turned down in his first bid to join the agency.
There are no police or firefighters in his family tree, but the seed was planted in him when his family moved out of Baltimore when he was 2 years old, he said.
"We lived near the old Randallstown state police barracks. I looked up to those guys," he said. He was further exposed to the life of public safety workers because his mother's parents lived near stables used by mounted police and a fire station in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
Of his time as a young volunteer with the fire company in Reisterstown, he recalled the crash that claimed the girls' lives - and how, two weeks later, a boy who was apparently distraught over the accident hanged himself.
He took some college courses before deciding that he did not want to be a doctor, and set his sights upon becoming a paramedic on the Maryland State Police rescue helicopter squad. His first application to the state police was rejected in 1977.
Fischer then headed the contracted security agency at Baltimore-Washington International Airport for a while, but found it dull and went to work in 1979 for the National Security Agency.
In 1980, the NSA sent him to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glencoe, Ga., where he was class president and a distinguished honors graduate. That year he was accepted by the state police. He was one week into the job, still driving with a supervisor, when a bus ran into a line of cars backed up on a ramp at the Capital Beltway, and seven people died in the chain collision.
After about five years in the College Park barracks, he joined the agency's Special Traffic Enforcement unit, working on drunken-driving and speeding enforcement, and later on bus and truck safety.
"I got interested in accident investigations. ... It's a dynamic science," he said. "I was able to take my medical background, my police background and my advanced collision training and put them together into a whole package of advanced investigations."
In 1988, he was named Trooper of the Year for organizing and raising sponsorship money for a national accident-reduction conference.
The tools of accident investigation have changed from slide rules and a so-called mini-computer that was the size of a conference table, he said, to supercomputers, laser measures, 3-D modeling and mathematical studies of occupant kinematics - the movement of people in vehicles.
He illustrates his approach by posing a typical question for a crash investigator: "This car wound up here, with this amount of damage, and this car wound up here. What speed would be required to cause this much damage at this location to each vehicle?"
Fischer has spoken in The Sun about chain collisions, speeding and other offensive driving behaviors, truck safety, and phone use by motorists.
He has also been assigned twice to the superintendent's staff at state police headquarters at Pikesville, in the Field Operations Bureau, and he was the commander of the Golden Ring barracks in 1996.
Next week, he is to assume command of the Westminster barracks, which has about 100 troopers, with 52 assigned to the resident trooper program that provides Carroll's primary law enforcement coverage, augmented by the sheriff and town police forces. He will replace Lt. Terry L. Katz, the barracks commander since February 1999.
Katz - who has spent 22 of his 32 years in the state police in intelligence work, most notably working undercover for four years infiltrating the Pagans motorcycle gang - is being assigned to the agency's new Homeland Security and Intelligence Bureau.
Katz and Fischer visited the county commissioners Friday in preparation for the change of command March 19.
Another top Carroll law enforcement officer knows Fischer well. Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning was a commander at both the Westminster and Golden Ring barracks during a 31-year career with the state police.
"He's a very bright and knowledgeable commander," Tregoning said. "He's had a wide experience of various functions of the Maryland State Police, and I think he'll be an excellent commander."