Saturday, October 12, 2013

When to Use a Flare

Some days, I'm just happy to get home to the sound of cows mooing on Minecraft. I'm good now. I have a tea latte and a new book. I'll let you know how it is.

A couple hours ago, I wasn't so comfortable.

Traffic was crawling across the I-90 bridge toward Seattle. I was worried that I was running out of time to get my errands done before Nick's friend dropped by for the afternoon. I needed to pick up patches from the Scout shop, to get gas, and to stop for groceries. We were seriously low on people fuel. Speed on the road was starting to pick up and I was almost to my exit.

The car in front of me suddenly popped up, went on two wheels, dropped back down, and dragged its carcass, spitting sparks along the asphalt, before coming to a stop on the shoulder just inside the tunnel. I needed to hit the brakes, but it wasn't a hard stop. Shards of hard plastic, bolts, and a section of bumper bounced to a stop around me.

I drove past the maimed car, wondering if shrapnel would puncture my tires. The front driver's side corner of the broken car was smashed flat. I hadn't seen what made it flat. How had I missed that? I pulled over ahead of the car. Another car sat askew beyond me in the center lane.

Should I get out of my car on an interstate? Could I get hit by oncoming traffic? Damn straight, I could. I'd seen videos.

Actually, things had slowed to a crawl. I looked back to check traffic and gingerly got out of my car. Grit and cold wind hit my face. I walked back to the flattened car. A woman sat, stunned, in the driver's seat, her air bag still deflating.

"Are you okay?" I asked. She didn't answer me, but opened her door. Smoke was coming out from under the dashboard.

"Can you stand up? I asked. She held her hands up to me and nodded her head. She grabbed my arms, making me stagger, as she stood up. I wondered if I were making a huge mistake. She could have a neck or back injury. Should she stay put?

The smoke wafted up around her as she pulled herself out of her car.

"We need to move away from your car," I said. "It's smoking."

We walked a few steps, then she burst into tears. I hugged her as she cried, but didn't squeeze her too tightly in case I was hugging a woman with a spinal cord injury. I drew her away from her car and leaned her against a concrete barrier.

"Did you call 911?" I asked her.

"I want to call my husband," she said. Her hands were shaking too much for her to use her phone. I knew it wasn't essential to our safety, but it was what she wanted to do. I took out my phone and asked for her number. I typed in the number she gave me and when voicemail answered, I left the beginning of a message.

"Hi. I'm with your wife. She's okay, but she was in an accident. I think she needs to get checked out at the hospital, but I think she's mostly okay."

Then I handed the phone to her.

"Honey, I'm okay," she said and burst into tears again. I patted her shoulder as she talked, turning, as the driver of the other car walked back to join us. He was talking, not yelling. Thankfully, everyone was in the mode of checking if people were okay rather than hurling blame. The man was Asian and in the tunnel's wind, I couldn't understand him. I walked away from the woman who was still talking and crying on my phone.

"Did you call 911?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said, but when he went on talking, I couldn't understand what he was saying. I nodded and smiled. I even patted his shoulder. A woman and a child joined him. The little girl, maybe five or six years old, was shivering, her eyes wide.

"You should move your car off to the side if you can," I told the man. He nodded his head, but I realize he didn't understand a thing I was saying either. He walked away, crossed traffic, and got back into his car. But then he came back and the car was still in place, in the middle lane. He had a tiny pink flowered raincoat in his hands.

I went to my car to get my flares out. The little black box held three intact flares. I read the instructions to try to figure out how to light one. I handed one to the Asian man. He took it and handed the rain coat to the woman. He had no more luck than I did. Traffic was speeding up around us. I wanted it slowed. In between fumbling with the stupid flares, banging, scraping, and rereading the instructions, I held out my flat palm to signal the drivers, hoping they'd slow down. They didn't.

What good are flares if I don't know how to use them?

The man handed me the useless flare and helped his wife put the raincoat on the little girl. He pulled up the hood. I could imagine how that felt, still cold in this wind. Her dad picked her up, trying to shield her.

I walked back to my car and got a wool blanket out of the back. I wrapped the little girl in it and he smiled at me, tucking in the corner around her shoulder. She folded her head against his chest.

"Is she okay?" I asked.

"She's scared," he said. Finally, I understood.

The woman walked back to me and gave me my phone. Her hands were ice cold and still shaking.

"Do you feel okay?" I asked her.

"My chest hurts. The airbag hit me here," she said as she tapped her sternum. She looked wobbly. I went back to my car and got Teddy's fleece blanket out of the back. It was furry, embarrassingly so, but I shook it out as best as I could and wrapped it around the woman. I wondered if I should I have her lie down, but I knew she wouldn't stay there. She paced a little and burst into tears again. I hugged her and patted her shoulder.

"It's going to be okay. Did you call 911? I asked.

The Asian man waved toward the traffic behind us. Red lights flashed in the distance, near Mercer Island.

"They're coming," he said.  I could understand that. We made a strange tableau as we stood in the wind, looking for the lights to arrive.

It was a DOT tow truck.

"I'm going to go call 911," I said. "I'm not sure if anyone called."

I walked past the broken, smoldering car out of the tunnel where it wasn't as noisy. For half the conversation, I could talk into the phone, but heard only a little of what the dispatch woman said. She couldn't figure out where we were. Finally, I heard her say clearly, "If you sit in your car, I might be able to hear you."

I walked to my car, got in, and tried to explain that we were on I-90 going toward Seattle just before the Rainier Avenue exit.

"Northbound or southbound?"

"We're on I-90," I said.

"Which tunnel?" she said.

"I don't know. We're heading toward Seattle between Mercer Island and Rainier Avenue," I repeated. I finally got down to the woman's symptoms.

"She says her chest hurts. Her airbag deployed."

"How old is she?"

"I don't know, maybe forty," I said, wondering what that had to do with airbags.

"Make sure you keep her still," she said. I wanted to tell her that the woman was wandering around the accident site while I talked on the phone, but I didn't. I was still stunned by the question about going northbound on I-90.

Finally, a fire truck and an ambulance arrived. I could let these people take over. An EMT took the injured woman into the aid car. I ended up describing what I could of the accident that I didn't really see to a police officer. How is it that these guys are always good looking? Then, I got into my car, crunched debris as I drove across the closed lane, and drove off when the officer halted traffic in a lane for my exit.

My hands felt shaky on the wheel. I took the Rainier exit, knowing I had no time left before Nick's friends arrived to make any stops. It was just as well. I turned back onto I-90 going the opposite direction as two ambulances raced past me. When I exited the tunnel, there were two fire trucks and two ambulances at the scene, two more ambulances weaving through backed up traffic on the accident side, and the two ambulances traveling wildly down my side of the interstate with no hope of getting to the scene.

So, basically, I got into my car this morning to get almost to Seattle so I could help these people after their accident, then had just enough time to turn around and come home. Did you ever get the feeling that you're intended to do something entirely different than you had planned?

On the way home, I left a message for Mike, called Nick at home, and then called Nick's friend's dad. I told all of them what had happened and that I was going to be home, but not quite prepared for our event. Snacks would have to be scrounged. It was a relief to be able to tell Nick the details. He got really interested when I tried to describe the flares and told me the woman was probably in shock and that I should have gotten her to lie down on the blanket and given her my jacket. I don't think he knows how hard it is to lie down when you're pumped up with adrenaline, especially around strangers and by the side of the road. Still, hearing his voice calmed me down.

When I got off I-90, I felt some relief and there was more, much more, when I drove into my driveway and stopped the car safely.

I'm going to have to get Mike to show me how to use a stupid flare.

Thank you for listening, jb

P.S. My Dove candy fortune just told me: 'You are exactly where you are supposed to be.' Funny message, huh?


  1. You are right, you were meant to be there.Its such a humbling experience,isn't it.I hope and pray that the woman in accident is alright. You did great :)

  2. Thank you Arti. I was humbled by it. That's for sure. I had such a feeling of impermanence that hung with me after that. I also had Mike show both Nick and I how to light a flare. It was fun!

    Next time, if there is one, I hope to do a better job. I've been thinking about that woman for days now.