Finding a Way Forward
My feet were cold. In my haste to run out the door that night when the pager chirped and informed me that it was time to get moving, I had neglected to put socks on. So now my feet were cold, and it was both distracting and inconvenient. Of course, with everything else that was going on at the moment it would have been hard to generate any sympathy from my colleagues, but still, they were cold.
In the early 1990s my wife Rosanne and I had moved out of the city and were living in an idyllic township on the fringe of British Columbia’s Okanagan valley, Canada’s answer to the better known Napa Valley in California. Having spent a few years at school and work in an urban environment, we had been attracted by the opportunity a small town would bring. To buy a house, start a family and live a more relaxed lifestyle than that accompanied by traffic jams, skyscrapers and small apartments. By the time the middle of the decade rolled around, we were fully entrenched in village life. While I was travelling quite a bit for work, our typical weekend included things like picking and canning tomatoes, cutting firewood and enjoying a potluck dinner with the neighbours. Our small family had grown with the addition of our daughter Hollie, and we were continually delighted to show her our world. It would have been hard for Norman Rockwell to portray a more comfortable scene.
As a means of deepening our community roots, I joined the local volunteer fire department. There were few fires in a hamlet like ours, so Rosanne and I spent most of our volunteer time focused on the social aspects of the experience. It was a regular stream of fundraisers, putting on parties for the kids (and a few for the adults), and serving hot chocolate to the public at Halloween and Christmas. There was the odd bit of actual firefighting as well, along with responding to car crashes. Burning buildings were few and far between, but we had miles and miles of twisting highway that caused some excitement. Not infrequently, we were called upon when a car missed a slippery corner, or when a driver had been drinking too much and drove off a perfectly dry straight stretch of road.
It was autumn, so when the pager went off late in the evening I didn’t have my full repertoire of winter gear waiting for me as would have been the case if snow were on the ground. The crackly voice of the 911 dispatcher broke the silence. “Car accident reported east on Highway 6,” he said dispassionately. “Repeat, a car accident has been reported approximately 30 kilometers east on Highway 6.” I bolted upright in bed, quickly threw on the clothing I had set aside for just this purpose, ran out the front door and jumped into my truck, headed for the fire hall. It was a quick trip since it was a small town, and I arrived ready for action. Minus my socks.
As a small group of volunteers assembled, we rapidly fired up two of the fire trucks and rolled out the large bay doors. One was a fast response vehicle, fully equipped to react to the most severe crash in the worst of conditions. The other was a vintage pumper that would have been better suited as a museum display. Creaky and underpowered, it was nonetheless at least available and able to suppress a moderate car fire, and since we didn’t know what we would face when we got to the scene, a better option than none at all.
It was bad. The fast response truck showed up first, just behind the police, and the team assessed the incident scene. I was driving the second somewhat slower (okay, a lot slower) truck and we arrived a few minutes later. Two vehicles were involved, although it was difficult to say which piece of debris belonged to which car as the carnage was on full display, sprawling across the road surface. It appeared that a large 1980s station wagon had driven head on into the side of a 70s era muscle car, which was damaged almost beyond recognition. The driver of the larger car had emerged remarkably well, sustaining some serious injuries but conscious and coherent. Alive and loaded into the back of the ambulance which had recently appeared, he was taken to hospital and we turned our attention to the wreck which had once been the pride of someone’s garage.
Before I describe the next few minutes, it’s important to understand how the mind shifts very quickly when it needs to. Bear in mind that a half hour prior to me standing on the side of the road in the midst of mayhem and flashing emergency lights, I’d been in a warm bed and had just fallen asleep. It was the most regular of times, having spent the day doing things that you and most other people would see as normal, enjoyable and wholly unexceptional. Raking leaves, playing with my daughter, eating dinner. Going about life in a very ordinary way. And now, 30 minutes later, all of that was temporarily forgotten.
We could hear something emanating from the car, moaning and muffled screams. Whatever action we took had to be quick. Armed with the Jaws of Life, we found the driver’s side door (yes, even finding the edge of the door was a challenge) and commenced ripping it apart, literally cutting the hinges in half to open the car. It was more akin to removing the lid from a can of beans than opening a car door, if you want to visualize that moment. Once we had cut away enough crumpled metal to access the squashed interior of the car, it was instantly obvious that the driver and front seat passenger were not the ones that had cried out.
They were very clearly dead. There’s no need to provide the gruesome details, and while I’m not a doctor and unable to legally pronounce death, their health status was not in question. Pausing for just a moment, we realized there was a third person somewhere in the distorted heap of plastic and steel as a low moan eerily came from within. We quickly ignored the two front seat occupants, knowing they were beyond help and continued cutting away everything between us and the other passenger who was still alive. Within minutes we found him; a young man who had sustained massive trauma but remained fighting for his life was exposed. In combination with the paramedics, we carefully extracted and transferred him to another waiting ambulance which whisked him away. Then, silence. And while the evening had so far been a combination of action, adrenalin and sorrow, it was about to become surreal.
With the emergency nature of the incident now passed, we received some additional orders over the radio. The station wagon belonged to the funeral director of a small town that was many kilometers away. He had been returning from one of the larger Okanagan cities where a series of cremations had been held that week. The old station wagon had been full of urns, the remains of the departed, and we were alerted to fact that their families would be distraught if their loved ones weren’t able to make the final trip home. Our new task, rather than save the living was to search for the dead. Through the wreckage and adjacent forest we hunted, finally gathering all of the containers of ashes. In the weirdness of the night, two very random thoughts struck me. The first was that the urns were extremely robust, each of them looking almost brand new even though they had just been through a horrific crash. The second was the name on one of the vessels, Hazel Mae. “No one names their kid Hazel Mae anymore,” I thought. “She must have been very old and lived a good life.” The idea brought me a fleeting moment of comfort.
The task complete, we now waited. The rules required a police traffic analyst to attend all fatal crashes, but he was two hours away. So we waited. Our truck was parked very close to the destroyed sports car whose driver and passenger were still inside, so I was forced to wait beside them. It was a macabre, almost Monty Pythonesque time, waiting alongside two deceased young men while worrying about my cold toes. Anything but normal.
An hour passed, and soon the red flashing emergency lights were diluted with the amber of a highway vehicle. A tow truck. The driver slowed then stopped at our barricade, as the highway was still closed pending the arrival of the traffic analyst. He got out of his truck and casually mentioned that he had been monitoring the police band scanner and heard about the crash, so he figured he’d get some business by hauling away at least one of the damaged vehicles. Just a working guy trying to make some extra money on a Friday night. As his eyes adjusted to the light he looked past the plastic barriers, and slowly the smile on his face faded to a look of shock.
“That’s my son’s car,” he trembled. “Is he… is anyone…?”
The police officer beside me looked at him and said quietly “There was a passenger in the back who was still alive. The two others… I’m sorry”. The tow truck driver, the look of shock replaced by a visage of horror, dropped to his knees and screamed. And screamed. The recognition that his son was dead lowered him to a place I’ve never seen any other person go, at least in front of me. His moan was ancient, coming from a place that was likely part of us before we were even human. It was the cry of someone who has hit the bottom, lost it all. It was disturbing beyond belief, and I believed in that second it was over for him. Based on what I was seeing, his life was as done as those in the urns we had gathered. The two police officers and a paramedic surrounded him in a show of support, and in my haze I wandered back to the truck. To wait. Beside the dead boys.
The night eventually ended. The cars and debris were cleared away, as were the bodies. Within 24 hours we were back to living our normal lives, the events of that night blurred. I cut the lawn, played with my daughter, walked with my wife. Ordinary.
About three weeks later, we received two thank you cards at the fire hall. The first was from the parents of the third person in the car, the man we had retrieved and sent to the hospital. Apparently, he had been revived twice on the ambulance ride into town, but died later that night. His mom thanked us for trying to keep him alive. The other was from the tow truck driver and his wife, just saying how sad they were and to thank us for not disrespecting his son’s body. For waiting that night. Cold toes and all.
The fact that a person can mentally move from the absolute depths of despair to sending a thank you note is, in my view, an indication of the resilience we all have within us. No matter how bad things are for any of us, there is a brighter future ahead. Our physical, mental and financial circumstances may not immediately improve, and in some cases may even deteriorate. But we will pull ourselves through. Don’t like your current job? Something else awaits, and you’ll find it. Global pandemic of coronavirus? It’s a big problem, but we will collaborate and move to the next stage. We have, individually and collectively, a fierce mind and strong drive to survive. It’s not a matter of being a hero or projecting bravery when you’re terrified of something. It’s just that we’ll find a way forward. Because that’s what people do.
And that’s what we will do. All of us.