I’m writing this week’s post to help me process through a recent traumatic experience. We all process tragedy differently, I’m a talker, so I’m hoping this helps me. Be advised, this article does contain graphic content and could be difficult for some to read. It won’t offend me if you decide to pass on this week’s article, but I need to do this for me.
“Let your holy angels be with me.. that the wicked foe may have no power over me..”
It happened so suddenly. My family and I were traveling along I-77 through North Carolina. It was windy and darkness had fallen, my eyes were watching the road and scanning for deer along the roadside. We had already been on the road for about 7 hours, and we were getting closer to our destination. The last thing we needed was a skittish deer, crossing the road. There weren’t many cars on the road, so we were making good time and enjoying great conversation.
Suddenly my wife yelled, “Ross there’s a tree across the road!”
“There’s a tree on the road!”
My eyes saw it.
A tree fallen completely across the road!
It was massive!
75mph to 0mph happened fast.
We stopped within a foot or two of this monstrous tree, that was now laying across the highway. The car that had been just a bit further ahead of us in the other lane, also stopped but slid and took a branch against the windshield.
My wife and I hopped out of the car to make sure they were ok. They were shaken and their windshield was cracked, but they were okay. With hazard lights flashing, cars were able to stop behind us and traffic began to pile up as we tried to figure out a plan of action for this massive tree that was now impeding traffic.
We watched as two of those ridiculous looking lifted pickup trucks (pulling the “invisible trailers” aka. “The Carolina Squat”) off-roaded and went around. Jerks. It was at that point when I noticed another set of taillights just beyond the tree.
I grabbed my flashlight (I always travel with a flashlight, knife, and tourniquet – amongst other important items) and started to make my way through the tree. I stopped and yelled back for Alisha to come quickly. She grabbed her medical kit and we worked our way through the tree branches to the other side.
As we crawled over the branches of this now-fallen tree, we noticed scraped branches, jagged broken limbs, broken glass, and pieces of car. Bumper. Hood. Side-panels. Crumpled, twisted metal
“My God, that car went through the tree.”
My wife and I moved faster.
A trail of car fluids and debris led us to a battered hulk of smoking metal that had once been a car. The radio was blasting, and smoke was rising from the engine, creating a unique and now unforgettable combination of sound and smell. It was hard to breathe even 2 days later, my wife and I are still coughing from whatever it was we inhaled.
We were the first ones on the scene. I’ve never been the first one on the scene.
I told myself: Detach from the emotions, take a breath, look around, see what’s going on, engage and do what you can.
We couldn’t pry the doors open. We tried.
The music was so loud we could barely hear our own voices, much less any voices trapped inside.
“Are you ok?”
“Can you hear me?”
Their music, forever seared into my brain, drowned out all other sounds.
From the passenger side of the car, I was able to pull at the airbags to look inside. Two passengers. Male driver, female passenger. Mid-thirties, maybe forty? They weren’t responding. Lots of blood. Not good. The images now stuck in my brain, don’t need to be described here for you.. trust me.
We couldn’t get in, though. The 911 dispatch told us to keep our distance as the smoking car could explode. But we wanted to help. Finally, the music stopped, not sure how, but it did. A simple blessing in the midst of this, it gave us an opening to communicate.
I yelled in, “Sir, Ma’am, are you ok? Can you hear me?”
The female passenger responded, “Help.”
“How many of you are in the car?”
“Ma’am, where do you hurt?”
“Try not to move your head, stay still, help is coming.”
My wife was on with 911 dispatch explaining the situation. Telling them where we were, what had happened giving important medical details.
As I stood outside the car shouting to the woman, I asked her about the driver, she reached over for him and hit his arm trying to wake him. He didn’t respond. From what I could see, he wasn’t going to be responding and her neck didn’t look right.
“Lord have mercy on them.”
We couldn’t get into the car, but then again, even if we could, we couldn’t move the passengers. Movement would make things worse.
Some other travelers arrived, offering to help however they could.
My wife and I realized at that point that our four children were over 100 yards away. In the car. By themselves. On the other side of the tree. I ran back to check on them. My medical knowledge is limited, so I needed to check in on the kids. They were fine. Shaken. A bit worried. But they were ok. They’re strong, resilient troopers. I took care of a few pressing needs with them and went back through the tree to the incident.
Except now we had a new situation to contend with. The emergency vehicles couldn’t make it through to the accident scene. The tree was impeding their progress. Utilizing chain and a semi we got to work trying to clear a path. The tree was too big, we were getting nowhere. Suddenly a guy with a chainsaw showed up. Seems the kids in those “Carolina Squatted” trucks had at least called to report a downed tree.
“Thank you, Lord for that!”
Now we were making progress. Pulling. Pushing. Lifting. Dragging. I may not know medical stuff, but I could do brute force. We cleared a lane, ambulances could squeeze through. We kept working. Both lanes were clear. Firetrucks. More emergency vehicles. Flashing lights everywhere.
I needed to stay busy. Being busy gave me purpose and opportunity to pray. It also distracted my mind, momentarily, from the things I had seen. I grabbed a broom off the firetruck and started to sweep. 75 yards of road. Two-lanes wide and the shoulder too. Dragging the big branches and then sweeping. Back and forth from shoulder to shoulder. I swept and swept and swept some more.
It started to rain. I was thankful for the rain. Tears and rain running down my face, I pushed that broom across the road. Sweeping and praying. Leaves, glass, branches, metal. I’ve never swept so hard before.
“Lord, I know that situation isn’t good. Be with that couple. Give me strength to do what I can. Thank you for keeping us safe. This could have been us. Dear God, that could have been us.. thank you for my wife’s alertness.. thank you for protecting my family.”
Emergency vehicles on scene. Rain falling. Road swept. My wife and I crawled back into the car. Silent. Shaken. A flood of emotions. Except now, we had front row seats to the accident scene. Thankfully they set up a perimeter so we couldn’t see everything and the kids were shielded from the emergency crew in action… but I could still see.
My heart sank as the medical examiner walked past our vehicle. Was that one black bag in his hand or two?
“Oh Lord, I know the driver wasn’t going to make it, but please be with the passenger.”
My heart sank further, it was two bags. And I saw them being loaded into the back of the ambulances.
“Lord have mercy. I hope they knew Jesus.”
I was so focused on responding to the incident and clearing a path, I didn’t pray WITH them. I didn’t ask them about Jesus. I didn’t take care of their souls… their faith.
“Lord forgive me for failing to be a caretaker of their souls.”
There is a lot involved with a highway accident like this. We sat there for hours. Flooded with emotion. Thankful for God’s protection. We spoke with police, firefighters, EMTs, the forestry guy with the chainsaw. We explained the situation. We talked with the people in the cars around us. God’s hand was there for us and we all knew it.
“Thank you God for keeping us safe.”
Suddenly the Highway Patrolman was taping on the window, letting us know that we’d be moving again soon. Moments later, we were clicking off our hazard lights and putting the car back into gear to slowly drive through the road that I had just swept. Past the hulk of metal that had been a car that my wife and I will never forget. Past the spot where these two travelers, whose names I will never know, breathed their last breaths.
An experience like this, sticks with you. It has unexpected impacts on life. The day after the incident, my wife and I spent a good couple of hours debriefing the situation. What we did. What we could have done. What we wished we had done. We talked about things that we did well and consider the lessons we learned so that we can do better next time we are thrust into such a situation. We “debriefed” the incident. It was helpful. We needed it… and I needed this.
We arrived yesterday at the family reunion which were traveling to be at this week. One of the first thing my in-laws told us, based on the timeline we gave them, they were actively praying for our safe travels about the time Alisha yelled to me, “Ross there’s a tree on the road!”
I am grateful for their prayers and for God’s answer to prayer.
“I thank You, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that You have graciously kept me this day; and I pray that You would forgive me all my sins where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angels be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”