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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Salvation by Catastrophe

One morning this week when I threw my bag into the passenger seat and made sure my cell phone was turned on, I did not know that only 20 minutes later I'd be standing at the side of the freeway, my legs coated in salt-infused snow, staring down at the remains of a very violent wreck, wondering about the condition of the occupants.

It started as a normal morning, and the drive was uneventful, until something made me take note of a car rapidly accelerating behind me. (Now...when I say "rapidly", I meanlike a bat out of Hell!)  There was an SUV behind me in the left lane, slowly creeping forward in a slow, steady pace, and I looked back again at the car behind both of us, it dawning on me in horror that the car wasn't slowing, wasn't braking...and apparently intended to pass me on the left in front of that SUV!!!

There wasn't enough real estate for passing!

 I slowed and pulled to the right, still highway speed, onto the shoulder of the freeway just as the car DOVE between us, dodging from the right lane into the left, the SUV's lane, for the pass that ended catastrophically as the car collided loudly with the SUV's front end approximately at the point of my own left front fender (the front side panel of my car).  The SUV went off into the ditch in an  immediate explosion of white, the offending car went into a spin next to/in front of me and began to roll, giving me an intimate view of its underside anatomy while I braked hard and began to dodge left as the physics of the violent collision sent the car off to the right, rolling into the steep snow-laden ditch.

It was surreal as I passed, slow-motion in my memory, between the dual-whiteout-explosions on either side of me, narrowly missing all of the actions of the car that had caused this disaster

In shock, I could see from my peripheral the SUV stopping, straight in the deep snow against the thin guardrail to my left as I could also see from my other peripheral the ongoing motion of the car, still flipping, evidenced by the spout of snow announcing, dramatically, the motion of the car and where it was headed, where it had been, where it was going.

Stunned, horrified, concerned, I carefully, not knowing what was going on behind me, stopped and pulled over to the side of the freeway, reaching for my phone, and called 911.

"911 What is your emergency?"

"I need to report an accident on hwy xxx, 2 vehicles involved, one rolled several times. Westbound on xxx....we are......*deep breath* (trying to clear my head) street....I'm sorry...I suddently don't know where I am...!"  (pause)

Dispatcher (pause) "What exit did you just pass?"

Me: (still pondering, looking forward at an unhelpful railroad trestle, looking for a mile marker.....WHERE ARE WE?????.....  "OK...we're past yyy ...we're approaching xxx...we're between those....there's T landmark to our north."

He explained he needed to transfer me to the State Patrol, and I waited, and about every 20 seconds he came on to ask me to hold, he was transferring me, I assured him I was still there, and in the meantime, I grabbed my purse, watched traffic,. and carefully got out of my car, phone pressed to my ear, waiting for the transfer. I jogged back towards the scene of the accident, hoping to get info on any injuries or trapped victims to pass on to the dispatcher.

Finally I heard the transfer, and the State Patrol dispatcher tried to verify our direction (for side of the freeway) several times....I answered the opposite each time, but didn't realize it until after I'd hung up.

As I conversed with the dispatcher, one hand pressing the phone to my ear, the other holding my finger to the other, I recalled freeway traffic stops, both sides, both as the Officer and of the Motorist, and I realized how stupid I was to leave my car without completing this call.  Granted I had left to try to get additional information from the people on scene, but that didn't matter if neither of us could hear. I berated myself for my stupidity and for forgetting my professionalism, no matter how many years it has been.

"Who's in Charge?  'I am'" 

When I was growing up and interested in EMS, an EMT I knew, upon my completion of Lifeguard training, told me that what I knew put me far and ahead of most people. He told me that if I ever came  upon an accident, I knew the basics and that put me in charge. He told me to enter a scene, ask, "Who's in charge?" and if no one had any training, take charge and say, "I am" and then start assigning roles.

I remember being terrified. He saw that expression and reminded me of what I knew how to do: stabilize the head and neck, stop bleeding, and of course, direct people as to HOW to do those things.

As I jogged that very short space between where I'd stopped (and backed) along the shoulder to the accident scene, I remembered those words, but now, years later, having been trained as an EMT, a cop, a firefighter, but now knowing I was there only as a citizen, having forgotten more than she had ever really learned.

I didn't know what I would find; that was a violent wreck! 

Were people dead? Injured? How many? How bad? How to get there in the deep, deep snow?  I wished mightily I had my Ski Patrol/EMT first aid pack in my trunk, but I had nothing...not even medical gloves. I had only the vestiges of my training.

A few cars had stopped, probably those who had been in the immediate vicinity of the accident. One person had stopped on the other side of the highway to check on the other driver and was standing there, waiting as we all were, for help.  Some people were deep in the ditch, surrounding the car, assisting and....this will make your hair go up...they were taking children out of the car!


I think there were 2-3, all little ones.One was being held as an infant.

At that sight, I tried to go down into the ditch, worried they were moving people who shouldn't be moved. I am a short individual and as I stepped into previously-made footprints, I still sank into the dirty, salty, sandy snow, deeper and deeper with every step. I glanced up at traffic, realizing I was a sitting duck should another vehicle go off the road...I couldn't move. Each step encased me more and more.  I returned to the surface, realizing I couldn't get there, and if I did, I'd be in the way...those at the car reported they were OK...which was amazing.  By the evidence from the scene, the car hadn't just rolled side overtop, but from end to end - it had FLOWN over a chain link fence and landed UPRIGHT!  

One of the other witnesses on the shoulder yelled to the guys who were down below if they had been in the car, but no, they weren't. One shouted back that they lived nearby and had seen it, were able to get to it and help. He  reported that everyone seemed OK and somehow, carefully, they got the little ones up out of the ditch and into a warm witness's vehicle where they could be comforted and gotten out of the cold while we all waited for the State Patrol.  (Most of that had happened when I was still in my car on the line with 911/State Patrol Dispatch)  

We who stood on the shoulder mostly waited, watching, mostly helpless, for the State Patrol. We waited for the salvation of authority who would take control of this chaos and bring this family in the midst of this disaster into warmth and of course, to justice. One person was reliving her own past trauma, a direct witness to this particular accident, remaining to give testimony not just to this but to her own serious accident that had taken place in the past. Others were there to help with the aftermath and found themselves the guardians of the innocent children while, down below, those who had come from seemingly nowhere still labored to aid the mother, the driver, to gather items and slowly make her way through the hip-deep snow, uphill, to meet judgment.

The sound of sirens was music to our ears. I watched the coming of the State Patrol and I rejoiced, for finally, here was authoritative was someone with a link and directive to all that was needed. 

The Trooper assessed the scene and asked who were witnesses versus who was there to help after making sure that no one was in obvious immediate attention.  I and another identified ourselves as witnesses as another couple in an SUV identified themselves as people who had just stopped to help. They gave their names and numbers so they could leave, and went to their vehicle for the children.

The Trooper asked me for my driver's license, which I handed him & verified my address & number. As I began to give my testimony as to the events of the accident, one of the children exited the SUV of the couple who had kept him warm inside.Neither of us spoke as the little guy limped past, staring straight ahead, walking the shoulder, limping, moving stiffly, wearing only one boot.  The Officer spoke to him but he did not answer. I judged his age to be about 4, but he passed us as though we were ghosts, went to the squad car, and the Trooper followed, watching as the little man approached the Squad.

He asked the little guy, "Are you going to go sit in my car?"

No answer. As the little one reached for the door handle the Officer told him to go ahead and sit in his car and stay warm.  So he did, but still did not speak or react.

The Trooper came back to where I stood, and then the other child left the warm SUV to make the same staggering trek to the Squad car, wearing the same stricken expression, and I don't think he had anything on his feet at all.   I think he, like his brother, had lost his boots in the crash or on the way up through the ditch.

I wanted to say something, wasn't sure I could or should. I watched the expression of the Trooper, knowing he saw what I did, but had seen much, much more..this guy was no rookie. I wondered if an ambulance had already been dispatched.

We saw both children into the warmth of the squad car, and then the driver, the mother (ostensibly) emerged from the chaos, clearly shocked, clearly stricken.

I wanted to grab her about the throat and ask her what she'd been thinking, but realized the accident had already done that, so instead I asked her if she was OK. She was moving slowly, her eyes wide, and she seemed disoriented. She nodded that she was OK, carefully looked around and asked about others. I told her it appeared all were fine. I don't know why I didn't yell at her to get her kids to the hospital. I think it was maybe because she was clearly incapable of any decision-making at the time and really, needed someone to get her there as well.  I knew I had to entrust her to the State Trooper in charge of that scene...her and her children.

He showed her to the car and her children, then came back to get my statement, which I gave, now having seen the face and the children of the woman who caused this entire mess.

I spoke, I stated what had happened, truthfully, for seeing the faces of the stricken did not change the cause and did not eradicate the fault, or deny the necessity of justice.

Nor did the statement of Truth deny the necessity of Divine Charity.

I can't stop thinking of them:  my biggest concern is for the children in that accident; let's just say a four-year-old doesn't have a thousand-yard-stare unless he or she is in need of serious medical attention.

I was amazed that none of them seemed to have a mark on them. Were it not for the 17 inches of snow we got last weekend, this might well have been a fatality.  How ironic that although snow and ice were not a factor in causing this accident, it was a factor that ensured this family's survival.

But I keep going back to the children, their stricken expressions, their silence as they walked between the warm witness's vehicle to the squad car, one without a boot, the other in two stocking feet. They suffered in stricken silence the sins of their mother and yet they walked, purposefully towards Salvation, having been brought there by others who worked for that Savior, all for a common purpose, a common objective, in recognition of a common benevolent authority who sent an emissary.....

I felt so helpless as I witnessed all of this, until I recognized that I was a part of  it.  In a Flannery O'Connor-type of allegory, we were living out the story of salvation on a Minnesota highway, from Genesis through the Passion.

Those of you who know both Flannery and the story of Salvation will understand...those of you who don't.....won't.

"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't" The Misfit said, "I wisht I had of been there, " he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right. I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would have known. Listen lady, " he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now."  His voice seemed about to  crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're on of my babies. You're one of my own children!" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took his glasses and began to clean them. 

~ Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find


belinda said...

Oh my stars, I need a tissue and a cookie. That was tough to read let alone live through. I pray everyone is okay.

You wrote..."They suffered in stricken silence the sins of their mother and yet they walked, purposefully towards Salvation,"

-When I read that I thought of the many parents who lead their children into sin by example or direction and if unrepentant will suffer the worst pain in the end and all because of their parents.

Robin said...

Adoro, this was something powerful to read. I was once one of those children. My mother and year-old brother were killed in a head-on collision; my 4yo brother and I (7) survived. It was my grandmother who heard the sound of the crash 1/4 mile from our homes and made the call you had to make.

As it turns out, one can have worse experiences. Thankfully I did not yet know that.

And yes, I do know The Misfit well.

Adoro said...

Belinda ~ yes, exactly. I'm still praying for that family. I hope the insurance company representing her calls me for a statement - I really want to ask if the kids are ok.

Robin ~ Oh, wow, I am so sorry! What a horrible thing, a tragic loss especially at such a young age!

Glenna said...

I tweeted this...wonderful first hand account.

Banshee said...

I'm just glad you saw that car coming at you and got out of the way. The accident could have been much worse, and you wouldn't have been in any position to help.

Praying for all involved.

Adoro said...

Therese Rita ~ thanks

Suburbanbanshee ~ Yup, I've been thinking about that since it happened. God's hands are all over this - it's a miracle I saw the car, it's a miracle I got out of the way, it's a miracle there was 17 inches of snow to cushion that car as it rolled, it's a miracle the SUV that was hit was driven straight into the soft snow and not into oncoming traffic coming in the opposite direction....etc.

Yes, it could have been much, much worse had even a single factor changed.

Anonymous said...

Adoro, As a former cop yourself, what do you think will happen to the mother in this case? Will social services come in and evaluate her fitness (clearly she put her children in danger)? Will this be settled as a simple accident in Minnesota or might she end up in court?

Adoro said...

Anon ~ I'm going to let your comment stand, but if you do come back please sign some name or initials to identify yourself. (See commenting policy on the side.)

Your question here really doesn't much pertain to my history as a cop. She will have probably been cited, and if she was cited for careless or reckless driving, that would require, under state law, that she appear in court as it is at least a misdemeanor offense. Whether social services is involved here will be at the discretion of the Officer based on his investigative findings; for example, what if her accelerator was stuck? That's not her fault. We don't know what was going on in that car prior to the accident therefore none of us can make any judgment that she was putting her children at risk. And...even if the companies call me, as a witness, for a statement, they won't be able to give me any details in that matter.

The accident itself will be handled by the insurance companies. She will be found at fault, her insurance company (let's assume she had insurance on her car) will cover the damages to the other vehicle involved, will cover any injuries in her own vehicle, and the other driver, if he was injured, will file a claim through his own company for those injuries. Again..per state law. Therefore, it will be settled by the insurance companies.

I did a series of posts on how insurance works and you can find them here:

Mary said...

Sorry Adoro, I'm used to be "anon" on my parish blog... for many good reasons. My name is Mary, and I am a lurker. I have family in the Twin Cities and I read you and Terry and Cathy of Alex and Fr. Z. (I remember most fondly your series on fostering a German Shepherd.)

Adoro said...

No worries, Mary. :-) I'm a lurker in most places myself! lol

I still miss that dog! He was such a sweetie!

Anonymous said...

Powerful and a reminder to me how important it is every morning I pray for all travellers.