A nugget of Big Medicine every day. #69 Crashing
“Overall, though, it’s the bigness of the car that counts the most. Because when something bad happens in a really big car – accidentally speeding through the middle of a gang of unruly young people who have been taunting you in a drive-in restaurant, for instance – it happens very far away – way out at the end of your fenders. It’s like a civil war in Africa; you know, it doesn’t really concern you too much.” – PJ O’Rourke
Were the words of PJ O’Rourke only the truth. Proof positive that his theory that vehicular bigness could somehow protect the occupants of said vehicle went out the window on my first motor vehicle accident as a fledgling paramedic.
On August 4, 1978 Arnie and I were dispatched to Eastman, Quebec where a bus carrying a group of disabled people and volunteers had crashed into Lac d’Argent and sank. Any hopes of rescue quickly faded and the response became a sombre body recovery operation. The first body was found relatively early. It floated free and somehow reached out to touch the knee of one of our medic colleagues who was standing in the water in his firefighter boots. His career began and ended out there at that lake. For years afterwards he said he could still feel something brushing against his knee.
The other 40 victims were still in the bus when it was found the next day.
The driver of the bus was one of only seven survivors. He said the brakes on the bus had failed suddenly while negotiating a steep hill and the big vehicle careened down the road and plowed into the water – where it floated out 150 feet from the shore and eventually sank in more than 60 feet of water.
I remember the mist rising from the surface of the lake in the early dawn hours as the police helicopters flew grid patterns over the lake trying to locate the wreckage of the bus. There were journalists from every major Canadian and American television network and newspaper crammed in amongst us all vying for the latest word from the rescue operation.
And once the bus was pulled up onto the beach, removing the bodies from the seats became a macabre dance set to the sounds of generators and still slowly flashing emergency lights.
It was a harbinger of things to come in my career as a paramedic.
I have seen all manner of death by misadventure in motor vehicles.
There was the guy who somehow got onto the Ville Marie Expressway going the wrong way in his tricked-out sports car and accelerated into the tunnel beneath the city.
We were just trying to catch a midnight snack downtown when we got into the tunnel and saw the first parts of car strewn across all three lanes and into the wall. Happily we had the presence of mind to call it in before we got any further into the occasional communications twilight zone. I remember my partner slowing the rig down and lighting us up as we came round the bend to find the engine and front wheels of a car in the middle lane.
Sitting in the center of the tunnel was an enormous semi-trailer loaded with farm tractors. One of the front tires of the rig was missing and there was diesel fuel spilling from a broken gas tank. The driver was still in his cab adjusting his baseball cap and looking out front with a thousand-yard stare. I don’t think he even saw us pull up. He was looking right through us and still trying to piece together what the hell had just happened.
Just beneath the front bumper of the rig was the cockpit and back end of what looked like a late model high-end sports car. It seemed to be a match for the front end that we had passed on the way into the tunnel. The driver was still in his seat. He appeared to be relatively intact which seemed impossible given the amount of destruction. We knew we had to get him and the rig driver out of the wreckage given the steady flow of diesel marinading the whole scene.
When we went to pull the driver out of the car, we quickly worked out that looking intact isn’t the same as actually being intact. Turns out the custom stick shift had been ripped out of the floor and went through the driver’s neck on its way out the back window. No open casket viewing at his funeral unless no one minded if he seemed just a little bit shorter in death than he was in life.
The rig driver climbed down on his own. Eventually he spoke and said that he couldn’t believe it when he saw the headlights dancing on the walls of the tunnel just ahead. He figured it might have been lights reflecting from the traffic on the other side of the highway. And then a millisecond later there was a car accelerating towards him. He said he actually heard the engine screaming as the car made impact with his rig. And then the weird silence that follows moments of enormous impact.
My car crash encounters have mellowed in my middle age now that I’ve left the streets. And maybe, just maybe, the words of PJ O’Rourke are beginning to correspond to my reality.
One morning last week as I was walking into the bank to use the ATM , I noticed an elderly woman inching forward into the parking lot in a full-sized car. As I crossed in front of her and stepped on the sidewalk, I wondered if she had even noticed my presence. She was sitting very short in the driver’s seat and all I could see was her beautiful white curls catching sunlight.
I walked into the bank just as she began turning into a parking space next to pickup truck. Just as I formulated the thought ‘She’s never going to make that turn’ her car made a solid continuous impact with the pickup truck. Her car’s bumper took off a layer of paint from near the back wheel to just shy of the front wheel where her bumper finally and mercifully ended its automotive-DNA-transferring adventure.
The little old lady put her car in park right where it came to a stop. She climbed out of the driver’s seat, closed the door, and walked toward the bank with nary a glance toward the pickup truck. I was incredulous as she came into the bank, said good morning to me and walked up to the ATM machine. She wasn’t aware that she had made solid contact with an immoveable object.
I tracked down the owner of the pickup truck, made the necessary introductions and gently broke the news to the little old lady that she had, indeed, collided with another vehicle while parking. She was quite surprised and very apologetic. The owner of the pickup was very understanding. I left the two of them to work out the details with their respective insurance companies and headed home to write this episode of The Positive Paramedic Project.
Be well. Practice big medicine.