In the blink of an eye, life can change forever. I got that truth smashed all up in my face yesterday.
Our friend the Whitmores came from Arkansas to spend the weekend with us. We enjoyed a fabulous Friday at SeaWorld, and decided we would spend Saturday at the beach. We loaded our van and their van with a cooler full of bottled water and snacks, and filled a laundry basket with towels. We were all set for a fun beach day. On the way, we stopped at Walmart to pick up a new bathing suit for Snapper, and to get a small grill to cook on at the beach, because the bottom just rusted out of our old one. We left Walmart and continued on our way. A few minutes down the road, we could see traffic slowing down and pulling over to drive on the shoulder. We could see broken glass and debris in the road, and figured there had been a car crash. As our turn came to pass the wreck, I looked up and saw a garbage truck on its side in the ditch on the wrong side of the road. And then I lost my breath because to the side of the garbage truck was a small, black car that was crunched and mangled, almost beyond recognition. It was still smoking and steaming, and a man stood on the side of the road, frantically waving at us. We pulled way off onto the shoulder and jumped out of our cars to see what we could do to help.
Once I was out of my van, I was able to get a better look at the crushed car. To my horror, I could see a small, blond head through the opening that had once been the front passenger window. The head was slumped forward and bleeding. It looked like a little boy, maybe 10 years old. The whole front of the car had been smashed into the passenger compartment. I knew there was no way that person could be alive. My heart clunked into the pit of my stomach. I was too horrified to even shed a tear. And then the head moved. Jim, the friend we were with, used to be a paramedic. Matt is an EMT. At one point in time, I was even a certified first responder. All the training kicked into gear and I knew we had to help. More people had pulled over to help at this point. One man began directing traffic. A woman began asking the truck driver questions about his home and family, and offered to call the man's wife. Two people ran up with first aid kits in hand. Jim and Karon began assisting the two people in the crushed car. I ran to my van for a load of towels and bottled water. The towels were used to stabilize the heads of the ladies in the crushed car. Matt attended to the driver of the trash truck. He was bruised and stunned, but otherwise okay. Another bystander called 911. Matt cleared debris out of the road. I gave directions for my kids and the Whitmore kids to stay in our cars and pray for the accident victims.
And then I realized that another car was involved, a car that no one else had even noticed. It was on the opposite side of the road, way off at the case of the shoulder, and a large portion of the driver's side had been shredded like tin foil. I hurried over to see if those people were okay. The people in that car were a man and his wife--Bob and Marilyn--probably in their early 60's. I brought them bottled water and talked to them to try to help them calm down, and to make sure they were okay. Marilyn was shaking like a leaf, and she kept complaining that her head hurt. I touched the back of her head, and found a goose egg the diameter of a baseball, sticking about an inch off her head. We surmised that she had been struck by flying debris that came through the shattered window. Her forehead was bruised too, from where she had struck the windshield. Bob was concerned about his wife, but I could tell that he was in pain, too. He vomited twice, which he insisted was an emotional reaction. That really worried me, because vomiting can be a symptom of head trauma and internal injuries. They called their son to come get them. I gently but firmly insisted that they wait for the paramedics to assess them, and I strongly recommended that go to the hospital by ambulance. I was really concerned about head injuries and internal bleeding. Marilyn asked me for aspirin, which I strongly denied, explaining that it could cause internal bleeding to become worse. I told her she should only sip water until she was cleared by the doctors to take anything else. I stayed with them, asking them questions and trying to help them remain calm until the medics arrived.
Though it was really only 10 minutes until the first emergency vehicle arrived--we were on a back road in the boonies--it felt like an eternity. While I was assisting Bob and Marilyn, Jim had taken charge of the people in the crushed car. The little boy turned out to be a tiny, elderly lady named Kathy. The driver of the car was Kathy's 51-year-old daughter, Debbie. Debbie was badly injured, but was able to talk to Jim. Jim got on the phone with the emergency dispatcher and ordered all units with extrication gear, and two life flight helicopters. It was that bad. Once all the emergency crews arrived on scene, I returned to my van and started to pray. The next 45 minutes unfolded like a horrible movie. Jim kept Karon and me informed via text message. It took 30 minutes for the crews to cut away enough of the car to free Kathy. Jim called Debbie's husband, Tom. The first helicopter landed on the road, maybe 25 yards away from where I was sitting in my van. When they got Kathy out, they started CPR. They went to work on Debbie's side of the car. Karon and I hung blankets over the windows of her van, in which all the kids were waiting. It was a good thing we did, because the helicopter medics brought Kathy right by us on their way to the chopper. She was not covered. They were using an oxygen bag to breathe for her and there were iv lines in her arms. The first tear escaped my eye as I saw that poor, broken woman. I asked the Holy Spirit to pray for me. I had no words. The second helicopter landed. Jim attended to the driver of the trash truck who sat in a daze, his back against a fence, watching the extrication. He is a young man, right around my age, with a wife and children. The first chopper took off. The helicopter medics from the second chopper brought Debbie by on a stretcher. She also had iv lines coming out of her, but she was breathing on her own. Her poor face was one massive bruise. The rest of her was covered with a white sheet. I don't think I breathed until her helicopter took off. And then the emergency personnel cleared us to leave.
Once we arrived at the beach and the kids were joyfully playing in the waves, Matt, Jim, Karon and I were able to debrief about what each of us knew about the accident. The people I had helped had told me the story of what had happened.
A northbound car had stopped to make a left turn across the oncoming lanes. Three cars slowed to a stop behind that car to wait. Bob and Marilyn were the last car in that line. Another car was coming up behind them, too fast to stop. She veered onto the very slanted shoulder and came safely to a stop just to the right of Bob and Marilyn. The trash truck was next. He was also traveling too fast to stop in time, and the weight of his load made it even worse. If he had veered right onto the shoulder, he would have hit the first car that had done that, and would most likely have rolled his truck into the trees. If he had stayed in his lane, he would have driven right over the top of the three stopped cars. He instinctively swerved into the oncoming lane, shredding the side of Bob and Marilyn's car before he hit Kathy and Debbie head on. The speed limit on that road is 45 mph. The flow of traffic was 55 mph when we were approaching the scene. The driver of the truck must not have realized the cars were stopped until the very last second, because his skid marks on the road weren't more than 10 feet long. That means he hit Kathy and Debbie at just about full speed. They left no skids on their side of the road at all, which means they were going full speed and never saw it coming.
In a head on collision between a fully loaded garbage truck and a Nissan Maxima, the garbage truck will always be the decisive victor.
Both women survived the flight to the trauma center, and underwent extensive surgery. Kathy put up a valiant fight, surviving 36 hours before her injuries overcame her. Debbie woke up and was responsive yesterday morning. She is still on a ventilator in the ICU, and she has a long road ahead of her. Please pray for Debbie. This is a tough battle on its own, but when you add in the knowledge that your mother has just died, the climb becomes a much steeper one. Pray for Debbie's family, too. They are grieving the loss of Kathy while trying to stay strong for Debbie. And Debbie isn't out of the woods yet, either. Her injuries were extensive--multiple breaks to her legs, most likely broken hips, snapped arm, head trauma, and probably a host of internal injuries. That's what we know simply based on what we saw. We know it is far more complex even than that.
So many people have told me they are sorry I had to see that. I'm not sorry I had to see it. I am abundantly thankful. God had us be the first ones on the scene for a clear reason. Jim knew exactly what to do, and played an important role in saving Debbie's life. He gave Kathy an extra shot at survival. He was a calm, experienced voice to break the news to Debbie's husband, and to give him clear, accurate information. He was able to get the helicopters there 10 minutes earlier in a situation where every single second is critical. The rest of us were able to offer comfort and wise counsel to the other people involved in the accident, and to help prevent other vehicles from being involved. The kids were issued a sobering reminder of why Pepper still sits in a booster, why I insist on the seats not being reclined, why I don't allow Snapper to sit in the front seat, and why we wear seat belts. It was a good reminder to Matt and me not to take unnecessary risks when we drive, and that I should not put my feet on the dashboard when I am in the passenger seat. Yes, that accident will always stick with me in my memory. I will follow Debbie's progress from a distance and I will pray for her and her family.
Most of all though, being a witness to all this will help me to appreciate life, to tell my family that I love them, and to remember that life can change forever in the blink of an eye.
If you want to see photos of the vehicles involved in the wreck, here's the link to the story in the newspaper.