Thursday, November 27, 2008


I don't believe I ever told this story on the old blog, for it's a tale that actually pre-dates the old blog by a year or so.

Back in 2002, the wife and I were headed south to North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws. Being a student at the time, she didn't get out of class until late Wednesday afternoon, so we got a late start leaving town. The traffic on I-77 wasn't bad most of our way to North Carolina, at least not the southbound side of the road. The northbound side was glutted, because most folks raised in WV flee the state in search of a place that has ready employment and only come back for Holidays.

At around 11:30 p.m. we had just pulled off of I-77 onto I-40, near Statesville and found ourselves in some truly thick holiday traffic. It would be around half an hour before we reached the inlaws' place near Hickory. Up ahead, the cars seemed to be moving along at a nice clip, even with most of them in the slow lane.

Ten minutes later some activity caught my eye in the road up ahead and I couldn't tell what I was seeing at first. Around a quarter of a mile away I could see a pair of red lights spinning in a circle, like reflectors going round a bicycle wheel. Then I realized that what I was looking at were the tail lights of a car literally tumbling down the interstate.

The traffic in the slow lane became suddenly slower as drivers began braking. I checked my mirror and saw no one coming in the fast lane, so I whipped into it to help avoid the crush. I braked as gradually as I could, because I knew that with a sudden accident like this people behind us might not be aware of the situation and might plow into us causing another accident if we were to halt too quickly. The potential for a multi-car pileup was very real.

By the time we came to a stop, we were near the front of the fast lane line, with only one car between us and the now stationary vehicle that had been tumbling moments before. It was a blue Chevy Blazer, lying on its roof in the middle of the interstate, blocking both lanes.

“I have to help," the wife said. She wasn’t just being altruistic. She was only a second year student, at that point, but as a medical professional in training she had an obligation to help when presented with a need—and after such a tumble, the driver of this vehicle would no doubt be in such need.

We got out of our car, stepping into the 28 degree North Carolina cold and headed for the Blazer. Its driver's side was facing toward us, its roof partially crushed and all the windows smashed. There were bits of broken glass everywhere. A woman, was trying to crawl out of the driver’s side window. Somewhere I could hear a cell phone ringing. My wife rushed over to the driver.

Other people had come from their cars by now and were standing around gawking, much like I was. I felt sort of useless, standing there in the cold with no idea what to do. I had no medical training. I didn’t even know CPR, but at the very least, I decided, I could run interference for those who did.

“Does anyone have a cell phone?” I shouted into the growing crowd of onlookers.

“I do,” a nearby man said. He held it up for a visual aid, but made no move to actually use it to call for help. I waited a few seconds for this to dawn on him, but it didn’t.

“Call 9-1-1!” I told him.

“Oh... Yeah,” he said and began dialing.

That done, I began looking for my next task.

It was really cold. I was standing there in a long sleeve shirt having left my coat in the car. I ran back our car and retrieved our coats. While I was at it, I grabbed the penlight I keep in the armrest compartment, just in case we'd need it. Then I dashed back to the scene.

As I handed the wife her coat, she said, "Go back and get the blanket out of the trunk." I hadn't realized we'd packed a blanket, but as it turns out it had been packed in case of an emergency. As the wife later told me, when she was growing up in Alaska her father always used to stress how important it was for her and her sister to always have supplies packed in their cars—like blankets, matches and candles—in case they ever became stranded out in below zero temperatures. In such conditions, having a blanket and a candle could mean the difference between life and death.

I brought the blanket back and my wife wrapped it around the driver, who was still only partially out of the Blazer's window. She seemed incoherent at first, but kept insisting, “Answer my phone… answer my phone.” That's when I realized that the cell phone I had heard ringing earlier—that I could still hear ringing then—belonged to the driver. Another man standing there followed the sound to the phone, lying in the grass by the side of the road. He picked it up and answered it. I only heard part of his conversation with the driver's husband, but it amounted to him breaking the news to the husband that his wife had just been in an accident and was now hanging out of her upside down blazer.

What the driver of the Blazer said next, however, completely chilled me beyond the cold of the weather.

“Where’s my baby?”

“Oh, shit,” I said. Two of the other men standing near turned and bolted for the other side of the vehicle. I followed. Another person was already on the other side of the vehicle and had opened up the back door, revealing a section of blackness. I took out my light and aimed it into the Blazer's back seat, afraid of what it might show. The light fell upon the face of an infant that was awake, quiet, and still seated in a child-safety seat. The seat itself was not strapped in upside down, as you'd expect, but was instead resting upright on the interior roof of the Blazer, having somehow come loose from its seatbelt harness and tumbled right side up. The child in the seat blinked up at us in surprise, but wasn’t crying and seemed completely unhurt. While I provided light, one of the other men retrieved the car seat and then we all walked around to show the mother her kid was fine. The baby was then taken to the nearest warm car to get it out of the cold.

More people were on the scene, standing in nearly every available space around us. Some were trying to be useful by using whatever bits of the car they could find to scrape broken glass onto the shoulder of the road. Meanwhile the wife and some other bystanders were crouched around the driver as she talked on her cell phone to her husband, who had been traveling in a separate car along the same stretch of road and who was then trying desperately to get back to the scene of the accident. From what we gathered, the driver had originally lost control of her vehicle while trying to reach for her cell phone to answer a call from him earlier.

Soon enough, the husband himself had made it to the scene. And within twenty minutes, an ambulance, a fire/rescue truck and a tow truck had reached the accident scene, having driven up the empty section of I-40 this accident had blocked. The driver was loaded up and taken off to the hospital. Her blazer was then pulled out of the middle of the road and soon enough everyone returned to their cars and resumed their collective journey, I'm sure a lot more thankful then when they stopped.

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