Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Accident...Part III: Breathe

We have all heard about people who smash into buildings because they hit the wrong pedal or whatever. To be perfectly honest, I have been really hard on those people in my judgment of their abilities to drive. I mean, you're in your car that you drive all the time...most of the time we're on autopilot anyway while we're driving. We know how it feels to be on the brake instead of the gas or clutch or whatever. A person knows subconsciously how it feels when they put their feet in certain places while driving their car. So how is it possible that someone would inadvertently hit the gas instead of the break?

I don't have an answer to that question. I still actually feel that way to a certain extent because of the reasoning I gave above: the familiarity of your vehicle and the driving on autopilot thing. But I will say this: I have learned what it feels like when it happens, and it's pretty damn scary.

If you've been following along, you'll remember that I had just moved over onto the side of the road to miss whatever silver flash it was that darted in front of us. It was actually quite smooth, all things considered, and there was an exceptionally wide berth as luck would have it. In another life, I would not have given this incident any secondary thought because it did go so smoothly...and safely.

But just as I was about to move back onto the road (I had checked the random traffic around me and all was clear), an unexpected twist in the safety of our position occurred. Apparently I had moved over just as the guard rail split, and I didn't notice. I mean, it's not like I was busy thinking, "hey...where's the guard rail? Shouldn't there be a guard rail?". No. I mean, who does that?

So there I was in my 17' fully-loaded U-Haul the middle of a guardrail split...and unfortunately, and unbeknownst to me, over just a little too far. For all of a sudden, at what seemed to be 100 miles an hour, the guardrail was coming straight for us. And not straight in the middle either. That I might have been able to move around. No. It was coming at me, which in the split second I had to sum things up, meant that if I made a mad dash for the freeway's edge, that guard rail would most certainly impale my passenger like a piece of chicken on a kabob.

I had no choice (assuming I didn't want man-kabob that day) but to head the other way...into the field adjacent to the freeway.

Now, if you have ever been in that part of the country (or in any desert-type of land) you know that its flat. Really flat. So if you were in a predicament like mine, heading over into the field to come to a stop and regroup wasn't a bad option. And as I considered the alternative, it was clearly my only option.

It all would have been fine except for one thing, and you've probably already guessed it: the gas pedal. Yep. I started hammering on what I thought to be the break as we jumped off the freeway altogether and into the field...except it wasn't the break at all. And my brain freaked out trying to understand why we were speeding up instead of stopping...because, after all, I was certain that I was on the break. Certain.

Of course I started screeching at the top of my lungs for my partner to wake up. Something was wrong with the truck...the brakes won't stop...we're going faster instead! Imagine what his face must have looked like, if you can stomach it. I can still see it, plain as day. Pure panic is the only word to describe it. He was immediately screaming at me, "What are you doing?", as I kept screeching about how I couldn't stop and how I didn't know what to do.

I finally glanced down to confirm the position of my feet, and I was horrified to see the brake sitting on the other side of my foot untouched. But I didn't have time to say to myself, "You idiot", or anything stronger. I had no time because even though I was now truly slamming on the brake, there was real danger. We were going really fast in a field in the the middle of nowhere.

And then I saw it. I saw a huge of those metal things that you play in as a that allows the water to run through underneath your driveway or roads. This one, being where it was, was large enough for cows to go through. This all would have been fine if we weren't travelling at what seemed to be the speed of light and also straight at a huge embankment. So huge, I'm sorry to say, that there was no hope of going around or over. We both knew, a few loooong seconds before it happened, that we were going to hit this thing head on.

For those of you that don't know: earth is like concrete when its compact like that embankment was. The only thing that would have been stronger would have been a rock-cliff. 

I remember turning my wheel to the right just as we hit. After that, it was like being in your dryer on the tumble-dry cycle...and that tumbling went on for a notable amount of time...with dirt being splashed in my hair and face as we continued to crash. I don't know if I remember coming to a stop or if I was just knocked out. I just know that it was suddenly over.

My memory of the experience after the crash is in pieces. My first memory is of me asking myself, "am I dead", followed by, "am I hurt"? I couldn't answer either question at first. It was dark and silent, and I couldn't move, so I wasn't too sure about the answers. But I eventually realized that my left arm was hurt, so I was probably not dead, and that I was severely trapped because I could only move my right lower leg and my right arm.

Then I heard my partner yelling my name. I tried to inhale enough air to yell back, but breathing was ferociously difficult. So I answered as loud as I could, telling him that I was stuck. I also heard other voices. Good Samaritans were already on the scene! Amazing! I knew there were cars on the road at the time; I had seen them. But because I was trapped in the dark, I didn't remember that it had been sunrise and that people probably saw the whole thing happen.

I have no idea to this day who the people were who stopped. I do know that they were among the first people who saved me. And I know if they weren't there to help my friend, he could not have helped me...and that I would have died as a result. I owe them my deepest thanks. Hopefully one day they will come across this post and know I am speaking of them.

I can remember being stuck so knees above my breasts and pinned to my chest...nothing able to move except my right lower leg and my right arm. My left arm felt like it was broken and my fingers on my left hand wouldn't move. I remember being able to see them (my left arm and fingers) because there was a small tear--for lack of better words--in the metal on the side of the van and a shimmer of light...light which was getting brighter as the desert sun rose...was able to get through. I could just see a peek of the desert floor.

My seat had somehow, after the airbag punched me in the face, slammed me down under the steering wheel (which actually turned out to be up under the steering column into the "innards" of the truck), with my seatbelt still on me. It hurt to was so tight and so small a space. I vividly remember thinking that I must manage my breathing because I knew, knew that if I didn’t...if I panicked...I might die. And that realization, my friends, is a tough one to understand and still not panic.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how I did it (the breathing thing) for as long as I did. Some sort of survival mechanism living inside me took over, one which I cannot remember and certainly haven’t been able to recall to my aid since. Apparently its only available in real life or death situations. Hmmm. Too bad...I can think of many times when I could have used that special resolve/strength/whatever.


As you might have understood from the description above, the van had ended up on its side, the driver's side to be exact. My passenger, just to answer everyone's burning question, broke nothing. He bruised everything: bones, organs, etc., but he did not break or seriously injure anything...physical. Through his aching pain (because bruised bones are pain like the devil, as anyone who's had them will tell you), he was able to climb out and back in and dig me out of the mass of our suitcases and whatnot...since everything that did not go flying out the windows ended up on top of where I was, at the bottom of the pile, under the steering column.

The van had a third seat in the of those half seats you see in many cars and trucks. I can remember, as we waited for the first police officer to arrive, the Good Samaritan and my driving partner trying with all their might to pull that seat out. We were all thinking that if they could move it, perhaps I would then have room enough to escape. Unfortunately, the seat wouldn't budge, and the weight of the men was only something I could tolerate for a limited time (remember now...the van was on its side, so they had to step on places that were on top of me).

I remember a police officer was finally on the scene and told me that emergency crews were on their way. I remember hearing the emergency crews arrive on scene. I am pretty sure that I did not stay conscious the entire time because there are some gaps in my memory. I remember that the jaws of life was engaged because they could not get me out easily. I also remember one incident when they (the crew idea which ones) were relatively near me outside the van, and they were arguing about which way was best or something...I only remember that they were arguing. And I got so frustrated at that moment that I pulled in as much air as I could tolerate and yelled at them to, "stop arguing near me and help me"! 

I'd like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the emergency crews who saved me. They were exceptional. Yet, a note to all emergency crew members out there: don't argue near those who are trapped. It makes them panic because you appear as though you have no clue what you're doing...and let's face're supposed to be the heroes who save the day. Not people who need time to figure out how to get along.

I remember that they asked me to chuck anything I could out that small hole...the one that was providing me light. This was so that they could get some idea of where I was. I didn't know it at the time, but no one could see me. I was shoved so far up and in such a weird spot. The crews eventually used a saw to rip open the van, listening to me in case they got too close (which happened only once or twice...near my left hand).

I was trapped, in total, for just about 4 hours before being freed. I remember them ripping open the van and a bunch of light pouring in...and a huge, yellow fireman's hat was coming through...a friendly face with it. I do not remember how my extraction all happened exactly, but I remember feeling as though I was at a rock concert because there were so many hands under me. First 4, then 8, then 12. All supporting me and lifting me out of the space that may have been my tomb had things gone differently.

I was in an ambulance for a short stint. I don't remember much. I don't remember seeing my driving partner at that time. I don't remember (though I was told by a trusted that I will talk about later) that when they put me on the flat board, my knees went straight up into the air, as close to my chest as they would go. It took a considerable sedative to relax me enough so that my legs could be strapped down.

One of last things I remember about being on scene is the sound of the helicopter starting up. They brought me over to it and were strapping me in, and I remember, very distinctly, being afraid. And just as the last strap was being tightened and the sedative was really starting to do its job to relax me, the EMT leaned in and said gently, "You're gonna be fine now. Just breathe".

I was out like a light.