A few weeks ago, I witnessed a terrible accident on a farm road that I travel on. I found out later that the driver was a 19-year-old young lady that was on her way to work. It was a Friday morning a little past 9:00 a.m. There was a heavy mist in the air and not many people on the road on the long stretch of a two-lane road. This road is well traveled and very busy during peak work hours as it borders a chemical and petroleum plant. I was humming along to my favorite 80’s music when looking straight ahead to the white pickup truck in front of me, it dipped slightly forward, a spray of debris confettied into the air around it and then almost simultaneously the back end shifted to the left and bounced to a stop. Did I just see what I thought I saw? I swallowed hard in disbelief.
I witnessed a terrible accident.
My day began late. I was due to meet some students at the archaeology lab at the university to go over an archive project. As I neared a large intersection where the county road crosses a divided highway, I noticed a white pickup truck pull up alongside me to my left. We both were at the front of each of our respective lanes at the stop light. This is one of the only places the farm road is three lanes as there is also a left-turn lane. Right after crossing the highway on the farm road, the two remaining lanes merge quickly into one. It’s here, when I am short for time, that I have sped up to pass vehicles. It is not unusual to get stuck behind a lumbering 18-wheeler truck for over half an hour as the next major connecting interstate highway is over 30 miles away. The last thing I remember saying out loud to myself was “I’m picking my battles today.” When the light turned green, I slipped behind the truck as the lanes merged. I noticed that the truck was the same model truck my son has, except his is silver.
We passed another traffic light intersection and I decided since I was late anyway, I wouldn’t rush. I paced myself about a football field’s length behind my driving companion on that lonely road on that misty morning. I tend to ‘buddy’ behind vehicles on this long-stretch of country road as it is narrow and it can be unnerving as cars zoom past you going the opposite direction. I am used to feeling my car wiggle when air drafts push it as large industrial semi’s whoosh by. It’s also easy for drivers to get antsy and pass up slower drivers by using the oncoming lane as a passing lane. This is a risky maneuver that I admit I have nervously done before. On this morning, I could tell that the road was a little more desolate as very few vehicles were coming from the opposite direction. I decided to tune into my favorite internet radio station. I was singing along to Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby?” It’s funny how you remember details like this.
And that’s when I saw it: like a large bag of trash exploded up ahead of me. I don’t really recall at what point the white pickup caught up to the large dump truck, but I do recall that they were in front of me for some time a little ways ahead. What remained on repeat in my minds-eye for the next week was the impact: as if the white truck in front of me hit a wall.
A few seconds later, I came upon the scene of the wreck. I couldn’t see the opposite side of the oncoming lane, so I pulled off the side of the road on the grass, with two of my tires still on the road. I ran to the passenger side and I immediately saw black debris everywhere. I yelled out to no one “Did anyone see what happened?” and my eyes were drawn to a man running from across the road to the driver’s side. I averted my eyes as I was unsure if I would see carnage at this point, so I moved quickly towards the back of the truck and around to the driver’s side where the man was at. By then, I noticed a couple of vehicles slow down behind my car. Then another vehicle going in the opposite direction pulled over. Two men began trying to pry the driver side handle and door open to no avail. I was dumbstruck and I looked in horror at the mangled wreckage. Another man ran up with what looked like a large tubular tool or pipe and with a quick heave swung at the driver-side window only to have it ricochet. I could tell by the strain on his face that the tool was heavy as he swung again only to have the thick pipe spring back again. He aimed next for the rear driver-side window of the crew cab and the glass shattered immediately. I heard a high-pitched scream.
There were shouts between several men at the scene about getting her out. I cried out “Hurry! The truck could catch fire.” Another man said he smelled gasoline. I also yelled out in the chaos “Are there kids inside? A baby?” I saw a figure in the back seat move, but it was one of the men that got in from the other side. The driver’s side doors were not budging and the situation was getting desperate with every passing second.
There were two women standing near me at this point that were in the vehicle that pulled off going in the opposite direction. They were both on the phone. I found out that they did not see what happened, but simply saw the spray of debris. I quickly realized that I was the only witness.
Sarah, the young lady driving the truck, was pinned. The front of her truck was completely gone. She was alone in her truck. The dump truck in front of her stopped to make a left turn. She rear-ended him. She doesn’t remember the impact and it is a miracle that she lived. She broke her femur, the strongest bone in the human body, as well as fractured her hand and clavicle pretty severely. Her screams were from the men trying heroically to get her out.
It took the two sheriffs about 15 minutes to arrive as we were out in the middle of a sparsely populated area. Until then, a man that arrived shortly after I did, took control of the situation with a calm resolve unlike anything I have every witnessed. He called out for a blanket and I gave him one I had in my trunk. He stabilized her head with it. He was in the back seat standing up and hovering over her from behind her head rest talking to her calmly as he cradled her head with his hands on either side of her ears. She was, understandably, in the throws of hysterical agony.
By the time the emergency vehicles arrived, the situation changed quickly. One of the sheriffs instructed me to go to my car and wait as they wanted a statement from me. I now had a front-row seat to the unfolding rescue drama in front of me. A fire truck pulled up alongside my car and several firefighters put on the rest of their gear as they simultaneously opened up large bags of absorbant that they quickly spread over the fluids around the truck. Another firefighter unfurled power cables that they connected to the jaws-of-life. I had not seen one before, but I immediately knew what it was.
The sheriff gave me some instructions as he gave me a clipboard with a form and a pen. I was to fill out only what I saw and avoid how I felt, he instructed. He said to write everything I saw and persons I remember seeing as best I could.
It took the emergency personnel another 15 minutes to get her out and placed onto a gurney. I did get out of my car eventually and took a photo on my cell phone of the front of her truck – but only after they removed her. It was this shot that I shared with her family the following day as up to that point, they didn’t have any details of what happened to Sarah.
This is a lot of story to share before the “5 Things…” but there are some practical things you can do in a crisis like this one. I made sure to make note of the things I learned from that day.
1. Stay Calm
This goes without saying. My initial reaction was horror. Adrenaline kicks in during stress and I could feel my heart racing. David, the man that took control of the immediate situation, was very calm and almost peaceful. It turns out he was a former EMT. He was trained in trauma response. I felt helpless, but I quickly followed his lead.
2. Call 911 immediately
I left my cell phone in the car, initially, when I ran out as the first person at the scene. The women that pulled over called 911. We all were experiencing high levels of stress, but these women did the right thing within a minute of the crisis. If there is a traumatic event, it is also a knee-jerk reaction to respond with heroics as the men did because we understand when a life is at stake. The best thing to do, however, is to call for help immediately especially if there is a need for medical intervention.
3. Listen to law enforcement directives
My emotions pulled me near to where the young lady was trapped. I heard her screams. I wanted to comfort, yet felt helpless. I knew I had an important role as the sole witness, but I needed to let the emergency personnel do their work. Sometimes we don’t realize that tense situations can also be dangerous. We were uncertain if the truck would catch fire and initially, I didn’t know if someone was alive in the wreckage. There were many variables that could easily escalate within seconds. If emergency personnel direct you, obey. I went to the safety of my car when the sheriff said so.
4. If you are a witness, state the facts. You can cry later.
It’s real easy to get swept up in crisis of traumatic events. When stating what you saw, it is best to leave emotions aside when sharing your narrative of the events. Conjecture has no place during crisis. It wouldn’t help if I had been saying things like, “that trucker wasn’t watching what he was doing and slammed his breaks” or “she was swerving like she was distracted”. I really didn’t know why the accident happened. I only saw what I saw; and that’s what I wrote on the form. Take deep breaths if you need to, but tell law enforcement the facts as you saw them. You can break down later, if you need to, which is what I did later at home with my husband.
5. Know what your role is and stick to it. Nothing more, nothing less.
We all want to help as best we can because as humans, altruism comes naturally to us. We are quick to assist when our brother or sister are in trouble. Altruism aside, we each have a skill set for moments like this. On this day, strength was not my forte and I certainly don’t know anything about trauma response. Unless you are a trained medical professional, you can do more harm than good. Remember driver’s education training? For some of us, this is a very dim memory. One of the main things we were taught is not to move a person after an accident! Although the men desperately tried to open the driver door and break the side windows, the man that stabilized Sara’s head was the true hero. He was a former EMT that knew better than to move her. Was there a risk? Absolutely. We all didn’t have a clue what would happen during those precious minutes. My sole role at that moment involved giving him a blanket and later, getting in touch with her family.
I had some heartfelt conversations with Sarah’s family since then. I checked up on her the following week as her grandmother graciously shared her cell number with me and welcomed me to call if I wished. I haven’t met Sarah and I am respectful enough of people’s privacy during difficult situations that it won’t be necessary. I emailed her grandmother the photo I took of Sarah’s truck. There were some personal items at the scene that I turned over to the sheriff and the family said Sarah received them. I am at peace knowing I did all I knew to do. Sarah’s family texted me a happy photo of them surrounding her wheelchair in the hospital. Sarah was smiling and her long dark hair was braided down the front of her shoulders as she held her bandaged right arm. They expressed their gratitude for assisting Sarah and filling them in with details. This was a precious gift to me.
A few days after the accident, I ordered a window breaker/seat belt cutting tool and shipped it to each of our immediate family members. I bought one for each of our sons and our daughter. I put one in my car and my husband has one, too, now. I continue to keep a blanket in my trunk. I cannot say enough about items like jumper cables and first-aid items. Whatever you need to put together so you can ensure quick access to emergency items, do it. You may be the only person that has that one thing (like a blanket) for your one role in a crisis.