The day before Thanksgiving I had to run some errands around town for some last minute holiday items. I had a lot to be thankful for. My wife was at work, but my two sons were in the back of our brand new 2015 Scion xB that we had gotten just 12 days earlier. In fact, this was only my third time driving it. Despite the unseasonably warm weather, I was finally starting to get into the holiday mood as we picked up our last items and headed home.
I almost took the back roads, but got on Interstate 81, thinking it would be faster. It’s a road that I travel every single day. I spend an hour on it heading north to Harrisburg when I go to work, and an hour back home in the evening. It’s a dangerous stretch of asphalt, and at least once a month my trip is delayed due to a fender bender or overturned semi. I know that the percentages of something bad happening to me on that road go up slightly every time I take it.
On this day, I would only be on I-81 for a couple minutes, as the strip from exit 16 up to exit 20 would keep me from slothing through the quickly-growing Chambersburg, which was full of people doing the same thing I was on the eve of Thanksgiving.
A cloudless sky and break from work had me in a great mood. Suddenly, the traffic came grinding to a halt much quicker than usual. I was less than a mile from my exit and wasn’t too concerned that this would inconvenience me more than a few minutes. I looked up ahead on the road and saw a semi sitting sideways in the southbound lane. I then realized that there were only a couple cars moving south ahead of that, and they were all going very slowly.
My first thought, which still makes me cringe two months later, was “oh cool, it looks like this just happened!” I had never seen a wreck and was instantly curious and somewhat excited to see what had happened.
As I got closer, I tried to make out what was going on. Plenty of people had already stopped and a few were on phones likely calling 911. I briefly considered stopping as well before determining that I would be more of a hindrance than anything. I got a little closer and then saw a scene I will never forget.
The first thing I saw was the semi, whose windshield was cracked and engine was smoking. Realizing that this was serious, I quickly told my oldest son to look the other way. And then I saw the SUV. At least, I think it was an SUV. The front was completely obliterated, and pieces were strewn all over the road. It was almost flattened, but there was something sticking through the windshield. Oh my gosh, that’s the driver.
I had to look twice to be sure that it was a person. He was a faceless figure, sitting upright and completely still. Dark, burned, and bloody. Not the blood you see in movies. This was deep. He was stuck, his head exposed to the world around him.
Live just moments before and now gone. The strangest part was that out of all the people running around, nobody was near him. What could anybody do? His lifeless body was sticking out for everybody to see, almost taunting us that we were helpless to change what just happened.
What I saw next was even worse. A mother and her little boy were huddled in the median, clinging to each other and sobbing loudly. That was the moment the reality of the situation hit me in the gut. The dead body was surprising, but seeing that family cut me deep.
I had been on the phone with my wife and muttered out a “I gotta go” so I could hang up and focus. I felt sick to my stomach, and there’s no way I could describe what I was seeing to her, especially with kids in the car.
I took one more look as I made my way past the scene and onto my exit. I shouldn’t have.
Official Accident Details
I later learned some of the details of the accident. It happened how I thought it did, with a northbound SUV losing control, crossing the median, and hitting a southbound semi head on.
Calvin Mourice Edmonds, 44, from Virginia, was in a black Ford Edge when he had a medical emergency. This caused him to lose control. His wife attempted to reach over and grab the steering wheel but was unable to avoid a Freightliner semi. The 42 year old woman was injured slightly, and a 12 year old boy in the car was also killed. An 11 month old infant was in taken to the hospital in critical condition and I have never found out if he or she lived. What was even more troubling to me was how similar this was to my family. They’re a husband and wife with a 12 year old boy and almost 1 year old. We’re a husband and wife with a 9 year old boy and just over 1 year old.
81 was closed for over five hours. I later heard people at the gas station complain that it took them an extra ten minutes to get to work. They were acting like it was a huge annoyance, and one assumed it was some idiot who didn’t know how to drive.
What do I even take away from this? Thanksgiving was the next day, but the image of the mother and son was all I could think about. I would feel bad that I wasn’t in the mood for the holidays, and then feel even worse for feeling that way. I hated that part of me started to think “bummer for me that my Thanksgiving is ‘ruined’” when the family involved would now have that day as a constant reminder of the worst moment of their lives.
I made a post to Facebook because about what I saw, mainly just to get the thoughts out of my head and straightened out. I struggled with how to end it. “I’m thankful I was safe” seemed trite. “Praying for those involved” seemed like something to say when there isn’t anything else. “Please drive safely” was too preachy and stupid. I just ended it with “I don’t know what else to say” because it was honest.
I could tell people weren’t really sure how to respond to it. They would ask if I was ok, which I expected, but felt odd about because I wasn’t the one who would have to wake up the next day without a spouse or father. I wanted to share what I saw without it being about “me” but it’s hard to communicate. Millions of people have seen things worse. Sure, I was a little shaken up, but I am not the victim here.
What I learned
Even right now I struggle with writing about what I learned, like it was a good thing that happened because I got something out of it. That’s not the case at all. It was an awful thing, and my involvement in it is practically nothing.
Still, it gave me a new respect for the road. In the following days I would drive much slower, give cars ahead of me more space, and focus more on the road. It can be easy to zone out on a long drive, and I need to be careful not to let that happen.
The other thing that I learned was how fragile and unreliable our memory can be. Sometimes when I remember the scene, there’s a guy on top of the SUV trying to reach in the sunroof to help someone else inside. Other times when I remember it, the guy is standing next to the SUV trying to reach in the window. Still other times there’s nobody there at all. Obviously one of my memories is wrong, and that’s scary to think about.
I also have made a vow not to complain about how long it takes me to get to work if there’s an accident. Because a slight inconvenience to me is likely way better than whatever happened.
Next, I’ll move on with my life, and think about it less and less, every once in a while remembering just how complex and fragile life can be. For now, back to driving.