As I opened my eyes I really did believe that this was it. I was just waiting for the roof to crash in on me, crushing me beneath the weight of the car, doubting that I would survive. All I could say was “Oh my God!” as I gripped the steering wheel and braced myself for the inevitable.
This day began not much different from any other. I had been sick for the last several weeks but had been getting better. All that remained was that irritating residual cough which, I guess, kept me from getting a good nights sleep. I didn’t feel any worse than most days so it didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t leave for home as planned.
I was equipped with my normal traveling stock: a book to listen to, Coke to drink and crunchy snacks to keep me awake. I was just five hours into my trip and was doing pretty well. I had even stopped for breaks twice already which made me alert since it was so cold. One was in western Maryland at a rest area that boasted a Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The next was just west of the Eastern Continental Divide, for gas.
I remember beginning to doze a bit and kept alternating between my pizza flavored Combos and dill flavored potato chips. This was my routine. My life. I get behind the wheel and struggle to stay awake the whole trip, so plan ways to keep myself awake (as I did this trip). It had worked so far in my 40 years of driving (the last 25 or so being prone to sleeping at the wheel), only occasionally being awaken by the roar of the rumble strips on the side of the road. But I guess there was too much working against me this trip having been sick and not sleeping well, driving alone, growing tired of the Combos…
So I dozed off.
I remember being awakened by the bumpy route I was now on. The smooth road was no longer under my tires as I careened into the median. When I opened my eyes, I saw ground (I guess heading down the “V” shaped median from my side of the highway). In those few seconds, I briefly heard what has become a common command from my children on family trips: “Dad, wake up!” but realized I was alone and may not hear those voices again.
Next came a loud and hard “thud” as the front of the car hit the opposing turf. I gripped tightly to the steering wheel as in slow motion the world before me began to rotate, no longer feeling the rough ground beneath my tires. Then a crash, then smooth sailing, then a crash, as I rolled over three or four times before the car came to rest upside down.
Once I realized I had stopped rolling, I looked out and noticed clear fluid leaking from the engine compartment and wondered how long I had to get out before my car burst into flames. Interestingly, before my last deployment, my unit underwent “rollover” training where we were instructed what to do in the event of a rollover accident. We were strapped into a HUMVEE rollover simulator where we actually rolled several times and stopped upside down to be tested on our training to get out of a wrecked vehicle. That training kicked in as I braced my self against the roof of my car and disconnected my seat belt. I tried to open my door but it was jammed. I tried the front passenger side door but couldn’t get it open either so I crawled into the back seat and was able to open the back door, then crawled outside (just as I had done in the HUMVEE training!).
By the time I was emerging from my car, there were already three or four people who had stopped to help. As I crawled out, I heard someone calling in from the other door. Those I encountered asked if I was alone or if there was anyone else in the car. Still shook up a bit, I had to think for a few seconds before I said I was alone.
I crawled to the top of the hill and sat down, noticing how bad the car looked and realizing how fortunate I was to be sitting there. Had the car kept going into the oncoming lane, I likely wouldn’t have survived. Had there been something in the median like another car, guard rails, a light pole or a bridge, things could have turned out much worse. But as it was, there was just the ground and air that I encountered, both giving way sufficiently for me to survive.
Within less than five minutes, an EMT vehicle showed up, returning from another run, and noticed the commotion. By then I was up and walking around, tossing back into the car some things that I had dragged out as I crawled to safety.
The EMTs had me come to their vehicle to check me out. They didn’t find anything noticeable but a couple of abrasions. My only complaint was some back pain, though my back had been aching for a while (though not so much this day). One of the next things they discovered was that my blood pressure was sky-high, which seems like a normal reaction to flying through the air in a vehicle intended to stay on the ground!
Within a few more minutes there were several more emergency vehicles there and I was telling my story again. People kept bringing my luggage to me and the back of the ambulance was getting full! They kept asking if I needed anything else out of the car. It occurred to me that I would need my phone so asked for it and asked the guy (who turned out to be the Fire Chief) to get a few pictures of the car for me, which he seemed glad to do.
They encouraged me to go the hospital to get checked out, which seemed like the wise thing to do. I needed to get to Charleston anyway to work out getting home. I spent the next six hours or so at the Charleston Area Medical Center sitting in pain with that awful neck brace, while they took blood, x-rays and CT-scans. After all the results were in, the doc told me that all that was wrong was a “minor” compression fracture in one of my vertebra which was what was causing my back pain. He said that I was very lucky. I think it was more than luck.
Just as another example of the kindness of the people who cared for me, the nurse realized that I had too much luggage to carry with me as I walked the two blocks to a hotel so volunteered to bring my stuff there when she got off work!
The next day, I waited for the car rental store to open so I could drive out and get the rest of my stuff out of the car and get home. By the way, the doc gave me pain medication, so I slept very well and felt in good shape for the rest of the drive home. I picked up the rental and drove the hour or so to my car. On my way back, however, I realized that I must not have slept as well as I thought I did. I began dozing again and decided that after what I had gone through the day before, it wasn’t smart to push it, so I made a reservation to fly home, returning the rental car at the airport.
As I have reflected on my accident, I have realized that at any moment I am just a whisper away from eternity. I was thankful that in what could have been my final minutes on this earth, that when I said (repeatedly) “Oh my God!” that He was -and is- my God. Those weren’t just idle words said in a traumatic moment but a response to my relationship with God and a prayer that meant more than normally could be contained in three words. In those three words I was affirming Him as my Lord and Savior. In those three words I was confessing my need for Him and asking for his help. In those three words were wrapped up my faith and dependence in the God who has watched over and protected me for almost 54 years. In those three words resided my trust that my future was in His hands. If He had called off his angels and let that crash be the last event of my life, I believe I would have seen him face-to-face and cried out again, “Oh, my God!”
Here are some more pictures, if you’ve ventured this far down my post!