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The Paper - Escondido San Marcos North County
  Cover Story September 16th, 2010     

Harpoon

© 1992 by Kent Ballard

I met Mike about six months ago. I didn’t know he was a volunteer fireman until just last week. We found ourselves with some time to kill and we began to talk.

Somehow, the conversation turned towards auto accidents. He said that although he’d been on many emergency runs to car wrecks, he’d never been in a serious one himself. I told him I had, and that he wasn’t missing anything. It was a bad joke.

Mike continued. At last count, he had been on the scene of thirty-seven fatal accidents. I stopped and let that soak in for a while. It explained a few things about the fellow, one being his utter hatred for anyone who would dare drink and drive. I could see how nearly forty fatal accidents would make a guy that way.

He told me about things he’d seen personally that would give me nightmares for years. I’ve happened across a few accidents, some involving cars, some not. I always tried to help if I could, and managed to concentrate long enough to make a difference a couple of times. But I always got the jitters later. I marvel at the men and women who can do this all the time, knowing when the next call comes in they’ll have to go out and experience it all again. I’m thankful that there are people like that, but I’m not one of them.

Mike described several of the terrible accidents, and explained the techniques that professionals use to extract accident victims and start immediate medical care. The “Golden Hour” starts at the moment of impact, and every second counts. Mike spoke with well-deserved pride about his crew and the equipment, training, and dedication that they bring to bear in the fight against death itself. Surprisingly often, they win—but other times nothing within the power of human beings is nearly enough.

As he spoke, I could tell that one part of the job haunted him despite his best efforts to hide it. He was a father of three. His oldest son was driving now, and when he’d mention a wreck involving kids—he’d seen a few—a dark look crossed his face. I quietly told him that my boys were just starting to drive too. Like all teenagers, they think they’re invincible. He looked up sharply, “Let me tell you, they’re not.”

He’d loaded enough of them onto back boards, crying for their parents, to know better. He paused for quite a while, then blinked a few times. “You know, you do a job like this and you think you’ve seen it all. You can’t think of it as anything but a job, otherwise it’d eat you alive. You just have to let it roll off, man. But there was this one wreck we were called to…this one wreck…
…and his voice and expression both changed. I’m quite sure that he wasn’t aware of it. Part of him was already somewhere else—another place, another very bad day.

••••••

Two families were leaving a house, all of them going to a social event at the local high school. The parents and kids from both families were all long-time friends. Just so they could continue their conversations, it was decided that the parents would all go in one car, the kids in another. A seventeen year old boy was driving the younger folks.

Everyone in the little rural community where they lived knew the boy. He was a good kid, all agreed. Had a good head on his shoulders. The other parents were confident in his driving.

The two cars left the driveway and the teenager took the lead. His parents and his friend’s parents fell in behind them on the highway. They had a few miles to go before they got to the school. The weather was good. The roads were dry.

About four miles south of the small town where the school was located, there was what was known locally as a “bad hill.” You can find a deadly spot like this in almost every county in the nation. It’s where a combination of hills, curves, or poor road design all come together to make driving suddenly, unexpectedly hazardous. They’re easy to spot by the multiple skid marks in the asphalt.

The kids were northbound, approaching the hill. The parents were a couple of blocks behind. No cars were in between them on the lonely stretch of highway. Some said later that the boy might have been going a little too fast. Some said he wasn’t. It was never proven either way.

From behind, the father driving the second car saw his boy top the hill. As soon as the teenager reached the peak, his dad saw his brake lights come on suddenly. Then the car dipped over the other side of the hill and was lost from view.

At the bottom of the steep hill was a crossroads. A sixty-five foot semi-tractor trailer had stopped at the intersection. The driver carefully looked both ways and, seeing nothing, dropped into low and began to pull out onto the highway. He was blocking both sides of the road when the kid topped the hill. The trailer was heavily loaded and the driver had no speed built up yet. He gunned the engine for all it was worth, trying to get out of the way.

The seventeen year old driver looked down the hill and all he could see was a wall of steel and iron in front of him. He slammed the brake pedal and fought the wheel, looking frantically for a lane, a ditch, anyplace he could aim the car. There was nowhere to go. The massive trailer, still swinging out from the crossroads, had blocked everything.

The boy fought it all the way in.

The car containing the parents had slowed down a little. The father driving knew his son had seen something from the hilltop. He backed off a few miles per hour. It was enough to make the difference for them.

But when the second car came to the top of the hill, four horrified parents looked down to see the road blocked by a huge semi and the car containing their children--all of their children—skidding towards the truck, blue clouds of smoke rolling out from under the locked tires. There wasn’t even enough time to scream. The boy’s car slammed into the middle of the trailer and seemed to explode. Big chunks of sheet metal and glass flew in all directions. And the parents saw every bit of it.

•••••

Mike was on duty that day at the firehouse. An alarm went off, and his crew grabbed their personal gear and leaped aboard their assigned vehicle, Truck Four. The initial report was that a truck driver out on the south highway had made a garbled and half-hysterical call over his C.B. radio. He’d had enough presence of mind to switch to channel nine, the national emergency channel for the citizen’s band frequency. Most county sheriff’s departments monitor channel nine, and there’s a dedicated band of radio enthusiasts known as REACT who assist them, monitoring the band for whatever emergency message that might be broadcast. The trucker’s plea for help was picked up and the authorities called. The sheriff had two cars en route and called the fire department. Over the police net, an Indiana state trooper reported he was close to the scene and responding too. The emergency room at the county hospital was notified, alerted to stand by for trauma victims, no word on their condition—yet. Within minutes of the wreck a score of professionals were already in action, not a bad showing for a community of that size.

Mike was just picking up speed in the big fire truck when a call came over the radio. “Truck Four, what’s your 10-20?” Mike gave his location. The caller was one of the deputies responding to the accident. Mike had known him for years. The deputy called back. “I’ll hit the highway about a half-mile ahead of you. I’ll give you an escort, Four.”

A second report came over the frequency. Apparently, the trucker rallied long enough to give them what information he could. It was nothing any of them wanted to hear. “Broadside into a semi…carload of kids…looks like a bad one…

Ahead, Mike saw the deputy roar out onto the highway and burn rubber in the southbound lane, With his friend clearing the way with a flying wedge of lights and sirens, Mike held the truck’s accelerator firmly to the floor. It was imperative that his rig got on scene as fast as humanly possible. Truck Four carried the all-important Hurst Tool, the mighty “Jaws of Life.” Countless hours spend practicing at a local auto junkyard had taught the crew how to tear a mangled car apart in minutes, freeing the victims from the metallic death-grip of their own cars. Mike knew that nothing made in Detroit, Germany, or Japan could withstand the thousands of pounds of lifesaving pressure the Hurst Tool generated. At any accident scene, the Jaws would save lives…if there was any life left to save.

The first speeding patrol cars were nearly there. The state trooper, approaching from the opposite side of the wreck, came on the air warning other rescue vehicles to slow down before they topped the hill. “You’ll be right on top of them! Back off before you hit the hill. I’m almost there. So far all I see is the semi. Wait, there’s something under the trailer. It—OH, JESUS CHRIST!”

Other cars arrived from three different sides. Mike saw the hill ahead and began to ease off the pedal. The deputy in front did the same, and they cautiously climbed their side. Mike noted the scent of burnt rubber and brake pads in the wind. No gasoline, thank God. Mike thought there might be hope for the kid yet. He’d seen no column of smoke either. Maybe there was still a chance. If the impact had been at an angle, maybe the car had ricocheted off. He’d seen it happen before.
But when he topped the hill and looked down, he knew that no such luck had been with the children that day.

Mike rolled his truck up beside the scene and pulled off in the ditch. Then he reached down and simply shut off the lights and siren. His crewmen jumped out and ran to the semi. The police officers were already doing what pitifully little they could for the parents. One look at the wreck told the whole story. The Hurst Tool was never
even taken off the truck. They wouldn’t be needing it today. Not even the Jaws of Life could have made a difference this time. What had happened here was over with in the wink of an
eye. Four kids…

Their little car had hit the semi squarely in the middle. Their roof, outside mirrors, window glass, everything…had been sheared off at shoulder level. Mike had a sudden chill. He remembered another wreck where the emergency crews had to literally search for a missing human head. The bottom two-thirds of the car had carried on a few feet and jammed tightly under the trailer. That was the only merciful thing about the affair. The parents couldn’t look inside the car to see…

The parents. The father driving had almost hit the semi himself. The only thing that saved his car was seeing his son’s brake lights, as if the boy’s final act had been to warn his dad of the danger ahead. They skidded to a stop just a few feet behind the remnants of the kid’s car. One man leaped out, ran to the wreck, and fainted dead away.

When the police arrived, one of the women was deep in shock, unable to give her name and apparently unsure of where she was. The other mother had already screamed herself hoarse and was now emitting only strangled, croaking barks. She’d already torn off her fingernails clawing at the sides of the semi.

Mike told me that the parents were the only ones loaded into the ambulance when it arrived. The hospital had already been notified that the kids wouldn’t be needing their services. Mike wondered aloud why the shock of seeing all of their children slaughtered in front of their eyes didn’t simply kill the parents then and there. “I guess you never know how you would react to something like that. God, I don’t ever want to find out.”

Mike was looking at a wall while he talked to me. Or was he? He seemed to be looking at things I couldn’t see. I was grateful for my blindness to the scene. “We got three of them into the ambulance without much trouble,” he muttered. “One of the guys—he was the father of the boy who was driving—he was a different matter.”

The father had jumped out of his vehicle and kicked the debris away from the rear of his boy’s car. He single-handedly picked up the sheared-off roof and tossed it aside. When the police arrived he was still pulling on the back bumper of his son’s car and screaming the boy’s name. He was literally trying to drag the car out from underneath the semi with his bare hands. It took four men to pull him away. Four big men. When they finally broke his grip and wrestled him into the ambulance, “Well, I’ve never seen a human being—man, woman, or child—cry as hard as that man did. He just put his face in his hands and howled. Good lord, man, it tore us all up. Just tore us up.

One of the deputies and a couple of the ambulance crew rode to the hospital with the parents. After they left there was still work to be done. A wrecker was summoned, a roadblock was arranged, and finally someone made the call they all dreaded: the county coroner was informed that he would be needed out at the blind hill on the south highway.

Again.

The semi driver was unhurt, at least physically, and a deputy offered him a ride into town. No charges were filed. The men felt pity for him, too. He couldn’t stop crying either. He refused to go to the hospital. He said he couldn’t look at those parents again.

They hadn’t even been aware of him during their hysteria. It was as if he’d been invisible.

All they could see was the mangled wreck under his truck.

The wrecker arrived, and after a brief inspection it was decided the only thing to do was drag the car back out the way it went in. The driver hitched up to the wreck, shifted into gear, and pulled. Nothing happened. The car was jammed so tightly under the semi that all he could do was spin his wheels. One of the firemen suggested letting the air
out of the car’s tires to lower it. The deputies and one of the firemen did just that, and the wrecker tried again. This time the car slowly backed out, grinding and screeching against
the underside of the trailer.

Strong men averted their eyes and began to take deep, slow breaths. They knew what they had to do. The ambulance crew had left them a supply of body bags.

The car cleared the semi. The driver pulled it about ten feet away from the trailer. We were all standing back a little way, just in case something would snag, break off, and go flying. The driver stopped and, well, we knew we’d have to look sooner or later.

Mike stopped speaking to me for a moment, as if the wall projecting his mental image had suddenly shown him something he still couldn’t believe. His voice became a flat, haunted monotone…but there was wonder in his eyes.

Then Mike looked directly at me. “Do you know what happened?

Unable to guess anything from his eerie expression, I simply said, “No.”

Four kids sat up and brushed broken glass off of themselves. The boy who had been driving stood up in his seat and jumped over the side of his car, out through where the roof had been. He walked up to the first cop he saw and said, “Hi! What took you guys so long?

My jaw dropped, “WHAT?

•••••

The boy saw there was no way to stop in time. As the semi loomed closer, he saw that his car might go under it. He screamed for the other kids to get down, to hit the floor. At the last second he released the wheel and dove for the floor boards himself.

There was a flash and a helluva bang and they were all thumped hard, but he had managed to slow them down enough where no bones were broken in the impact.

They screamed and yelled for a while. It was later decided that no one could hear them due to the hysterical screaming of the parents. After a while the air became stale inside the trapped passenger compartment—what was left of it—and they wisely stopped yelling. There was a little panic at first, understandably, but what everyone said about the boy was correct. He was a good kid. Had a good head on his shoulders. He calmed the rest of the youngsters, told them to hang on. “They’re coming,” he assured them.“They’re coming. They won’t leave us here.”

And they didn’t.

The cop stared at the kid in goggle-eyed disbelief, as if a grave had suddenly opened and the corpse started chatting with him. None of the men moved. None of them could believe what they were seeing. These kids were dead, and yet there they were, rubbing their eyes and blinking at the bright sunlight. One by one they climbed out of the shattered car under their own power, shaking beads of safety glass out of their hair and clothing.

Then the spell broke, and the men at the scene remembered their training. The kids were swarmed from all sides by men who began giving them professional first-aid examinations, men who were hugging and kissing them, good men who were weeping with joy.

After a few minutes, the seventeen year old driver took a long look at his car. The reality of the thing was just beginning to hit him. “Geez,” he moaned to a deputy, “My dad’s gonna kill me.”

The deputy had just minutes earlier helped pry the grief-stricken father’s hands from the boy’s bumper. He had helped half-drag, half-carry the man into the ambulance.

He’d tried unsuccessfully to shut he ears to the father’s heart rending cries. The deputy laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, son. Your dad won’t do that. Believe me.

The kids were loaded into a police cruiser for the trip to the hospital. They were being taken to a reunion. Before they left, the young driver looked around at all the debris, the mangled car, the battered semi. It was all coming home for him and the other kids. They began to understand just how close they’d came, and why their rescuers had looked so strangely at them. “I don’t…I can’t…uhh…thanks, you guys.” Only then did the boy realize that he and the others had been given up for dead. He paled, but managed to shake the hands of every man present before getting into the cruiser.

A deputy radioed the hospital and asked for the officer who had rode with the parents into town. The officer came on the air and asked what he could do. The deputy at the wreck scene looked at the cruiser pulling away with four healthy kids in it. “You’re not going to believe this, but…

And a minute later the officer burst into the emergency room where the heartbroken parents were huddled.

I’ve got some good news for you folks…

•••••

About the Author

Kent BallardKent Ballard is a masterful writer who lives near Brazil, Indiana. While he made his living as a Journeyman Machinist for many years, he also fascinated a small group of writer friends with his tales of history, adventure, and of the military.

This is the third cover story from Kent Ballard. More to come.

Stick around and enjoy!

This is the fourth cover story we’ve published by Kent. Many of you have either emailed or called us to express how much you enjoy his work. Join the club. We’ve been pestering Kent for about 10 years to write more and to do it professionally. His work deserves a wide audience. Persistence seems to work as we now have him with quill pen in hand and he is busy preparing other tales of adventure for us.

He lives on a large, wooded estate with his beautiful wife, Tess, a pack of dogs, a fishing pond, and trees. Lots of trees.

A prolific writer, you’ll be reading much more of Mr. Ballard. Soon. It’s guaranteed he’ll bring out your emotions. Enjoy!


 

 

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