I don’t know how to describe what happened last night.
After we dropped the kids off, Gary and I were driving back home, talking about the weekend and hashing out plans for dinner, when the headlights picked up a scene that took a moment for my sleepy brain to piece together. The smoke and steam still billowing from a twisted semi truck in the median were lit up from headlights of cars on the opposite side of the highway.
Gary pulled over and called 911. He told me later he asked me to stay in the car, since I was wearing black and it was dark, but I honestly didn’t hear him. He ran across the highway to check on the driver of the semi truck. I grabbed the keys from the ignition, locked the car, and waited for traffic to pass so I could run into the median.
By the time I got to the semi truck, Gary had already checked on that driver and was running over to a smashed-in pick-up truck spun around backward on the other side of the highway, facing the wrong way. I was cursing the sandals I wore in the wet, muddy median. A man walked up to me, and I asked him if he was okay. He was not one of the drivers of the wrecked cars but had stopped because he witnessed the accident. He walked with me further up the median, because in the dark and the smoke and the occasional headlights, we could see more cars up the road.
I could barely see. There was another car, I think, besides the pick-up truck. Other people were walking around who had seen the crash, and in piecing together their stories, there was obviously one car not accounted for. Gary asked where the other car was, but no one seemed to know.
It was dark, confusing, chaotic. A man said, “I think there is a car down there.” Gary ran where he pointed, and I could barely see what he was after until headlights from a passing car picked up gray smoke from a dark-colored car tucked tightly into the dip of the median further up the road from us.
I heard Gary shouting for a flashlight, and I turned to run back to the car for ours when I saw a few people heading his way with lit flashlights. I have a first aid kit with gloves, a flashlight, and a blanket in the trunk of the car, but there I was, running through the mud in the median without any of them, feeling next to worthless with the mess around me.
When I got to the dark car, I couldn’t even tell at first if the woman was in the front seat or the back seat. The side of the car had been sheared off and was crumpled against the guardrail on the other side of the highway. What remained of her car was unrecognizable as any kind of vehicle. The woman was twisted in her seat with her back to the opening, one arm jutting above her head.
The dumbest things went through my mind. Maybe I was panicking. Maybe I was just being human. But in the violent twisting and turning of the wreck, the woman’s shirt had pulled up, and her back was exposed. I impulsively wanted to go to her pull it back down for her.
Headlights glanced dimly over her with every passing car. A group of 3 or 4 people stood near her, not assisting or calling for help, just looking at her like she was a sideshow, a display for their amusement. I could hear Gary on the phone reporting this last car so the ambulance could find her. He had walked around the car with the flashlight, looking for anyone else in the car, but she was alone.
A woman wearing a white shirt pressed her fingers against the wrist of the woman’s arm sticking up above her head. She said the woman had a faint pulse.
I looked around and felt my heart drop when I didn’t see any police lights or ambulance lights. I found out later that even though several cars had already stopped and people were milling about before Gary and I got there, Gary was the first one to call 911. No one else had bothered.
She had dark brown, somewhat curly hair just past her shoulders. I couldn’t see her face. Gary and the woman in a white shirt and another man holding a flashlight had already checked on her, so I didn’t see a point to invading her last moments by strolling around the wreckage that used to be her car. I stood further away, far enough I couldn’t hear the chatter of the small group watching her from the sidelines.
Gary called for a sheet or a blanket. Someone brought him a sheet, and he spread it over the opening of the woman’s car, covering her from gawking passersby and the stares of the group waiting beside her car.
A man near me in the darkness of the median saw the sheet spread over the car and said, “Oh, man” and looked ready to cry.
When the ambulance arrived, Gary ran to meet them and direct them to the woman in the car. But another man on the scene who self-appointed himself as God told the paramedics, “She’s dead already,” and instructed them not to bother. So they didn’t.
But someone had already said she had a pulse.
The paramedics tended to the drivers and passengers who were up, walking around, talking, no obvious life-threatening injury, while the woman in the car waited. Gary walked up to me and told me the paramedics were assuming she was dead without even so much as flashing a light in her direction.
I watched the paramedics across the median, talking with the driver Gary had helped to sit down on the guard rail. I turned and saw the sheet over the twisted car, and for the first time I felt like crying. I had hoped, until then, that she could live.
When police cars finally pulled up, Gary flagged an officer down and managed to convince one to finally come over to the woman in the car. As the police officer pulled the sheet back and asked for light, a man nearby held up his cell phone to offer the light from the phone until flashlights were brought over. Thinking he was taping or taking pictures, the police officer shouted at him to put the phone away.
The police officers asked everyone to leave who hadn’t been involved in or wasn’t a witness to the accident. Since Gary and I came onto it just after it had happened, we turned to walk back to our car. I didn’t look again at the woman in her car. I reached out for Gary’s hand, and we crossed the highway together.
I read this morning that she died. I wasn’t surprised, yet I still cried. I wanted her to be that miracle story of someone who walks away from a death-defying wreck and smiles on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I wanted her to not die that way. I wanted for someone to not get that phone call last night that their mother, sister, or daughter was gone.
I can’t explain the way I feel about it. It wasn’t the shock of the mangled cars or even fear from watching her die, if she wasn’t dead already when we found her. It wasn’t an inability to stare tragedy in the face, though I won’t even pretend that last night’s images did not disturb me. It was wanting to bring some comfort to someone and not being able to do it. It was wanting with all my heart for someone to make it through something she couldn’t. It was sadness at a human being treated like a freak show and a worthless, hopeless cause without so much as looking at her.
The worst part of last night was not fear, or shock, or panic. The worst part was the people who were still alive and acting like she didn’t matter. The worst part was the cars speeding by like the wreck was an irritant to their day. The worst part was the casual dismissal of her life. The worst part was feeling like there were less of us who cared than those who didn’t.
That is what I can’t get out of my head today.