Please Drive Safely - 03.26.01

Although I mentioned it in a brief paragraph in the Come To My Senses section of my site earlier in the month, I had to come back and write about an incident that I witnessed the night that I came home from SXSW. The main reason that I feel I need to write about it is because it was by far one of the scariest things that I've ever seen in my life. I'd seen a couple minor car crashes before in my life, but never had I seen something take place so close to me at such high speeds. All I could think of right after I saw it actually happen was that I was going to see dead bodies that night.

The whole thing sort of starts with me arriving at the Omaha airport at just about midnight on Monday, March 12th. I'd been down in Austin for 3 and a half days attending SXSW Interactive Festival and I was dragging ass off the airplane from lacking sleep and trying to adjust my body to the drastic temperature change. After tossing everything in our car, we were on our way and soon hit the interstate for Lincoln (which is approximately 50 miles away).

While in the car, we talked back and forth pretty steadily for the first 20 miles or so. I was pretty tired, but I had to tell him all my stories of SXSW and he was talking about how he hadn't accomplished nearly as much as he had wanted to over spring break. When we were just over halfway home, things got a little more interesting, though.

Just as I was about to say something else to my brother, I heard him exclaim "holy shit!" No sooner had the words come out of his mouth than a car flew around us in the passing lane of the interstate. My brother had his cruise control set at just under 80 mph (the speed limit is 75) and the little white sportscar went around us like we were literally sitting still.

Just afater the car had passed us, its left back tire went off the road the slightest bit, kicking up a bit of rocks before regaining control. My brother hit his brakes a bit and the car did the same thing again before looking like it was going to regain control and continue on. It swerved slightly again, though, and before getting back into its lane, the back left side of the car hit the guardrail of a bridge and the car darted across both lanes of the interstate and smashed directly into the railing of a bridge.

This was all happening about 40 yards in front of us and when the car hit the solid embankment, it disappeared into a cloud of smoke from its radiator exploding and antifreeze turning into instant vapour. My brother hit his brakes and I remember both of us saying several expletives and verbally panicking. We wondered whether it had flipped over and off the road or whether it was laying spread across both lanes of the interstate, and I think that our first thoughts were just how much carnage we would see once we got up to it. The whole incident had only taken about 10 seconds to occur (from the time that the car passed us to the time when it completely disappeared) and my body had gone from relaxed and ready for bed to instant panic in that time.

Forunately, the cloud of vaporized antifreeze partially cleared and we could see the car sitting just slightly off the road almost 30 yards past the bridge. My brother turned on his hazard lights and stopped the car, then hopped out and ran up to the car while I hesitated just slightly. I honestly thought that whomever was in the car was going to be mangled and I wasn't sure I was in the right state of mind to see it. As I got closer, my brother yelled at me that they were both conscious and asked me to flag someone down with a phone (neither of us have a cell).

Not only had the car right behind me stopped, but the semi truck behind him, so there was already a string of hazards flashing to warn cars coming down the interstate that something was going on. The guy behind me was already on the phone trying to give instructions for the police and paramedics, but had no sense of direction, so I had to step him through things to let people knew where we were. I ran back up to the car and stood with my brother while he talked to the passengers (just as a bit of background, he's gone through some emergency medical training).

There were two passengers in the car, a man had been driving and his girlfriend had been in the passenger seat. From the looks of things, neither of them had been wearing their seatbelt (there was an head imprint in the windshield on the drivers side), but both airbags had deployed. The guy said he felt fine and slowly got out of the car (against the advice of my brother), but his girlfriend was complaining of back pain so he just cranked the seat back and let her lay there until someone with more medical experience arrived. The car was completely dead (besides the thick smell of antifreeze) and there was no real danger of being around it, so we pretty much let the two have their room and talk while we waited for someone to arrive.

At that point, I realized that I was shaking. I thought that it was because of the cold, but my teeth weren't chattering and I didn't have the sensation of being physically cold. I looked over at my brothers hand and saw that it was shaking as well. After the police arrived, things moved quickly through procedure. He spoke to the two involved in the accident, then to my brother and I and the person behind us who had stopped before we were dismissed and could go home.

Just as we were pulling back onto the interstate, we could see that the ambulance staff had loaded the woman passenger of the car onto a straight-back board and had her neck in an imobile brace. While my initial perception of the accident had been really bad, things had turned out surprisingly less worse than I had thought (I hadn't seen one drop of blood on anyone, although there could obviously be lingering problems for either passenger which we wouldn't have seen). The rest of the way home, we replayed the crash in our conversation, talked about how things could have ended up much, much worse for everyone involved (including us), and were thankful that we were only running 45 minutes late in getting home instead of on our way to the hospital.