Witness to an Accident

The morning of Thursday, October 6, the dogs and I set out for Idaho. Given all the pee breaks we make - for them, for me - the drive from Kirkland can take from nine to ten hours. A long day. But having a "new" car to drive makes the prospect much more palatable. Except the discovery that the new rig has a single CD player, not the six CD player I've been spoiled with. Okay; I can deal. I buy a cheap MP3 player, thinking I'll record lots of CDs and NPR programs like Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me! and Fresh Air onto it while I'm in Idaho, then simply plug it into the car stereo system on the drive home.

It's raining as we leave Seattle. No worries; the sun shines almost all the time in Idaho. The car is aimed toward sunshine. We approach Snoqualmie Pass and sure enough, right at the Pass the weather starts to improve, providing the cloud breaks my pilot father always called sucker holes because they'd sucker people into thinking the skies would clear.

Approaching the Pass, I notice the cars around me, including a white, older Subaru station wagon being driven in a way that strikes me as slightly odd - one of those cars that as you gradually pass in the left lane you worry they'll switch into your lane, right into you, without looking. A distracted driver whose speed varies unexpectedly. I pass it a few miles before the Pass, then it passes me just before the summit. Also nearby is a black Prius. And lots of slow big rigs. Those of us going the speed limit of 65 - or a bit faster - vie for passing space in the two left lanes, one lane less than usual on the final climb to the summit due to construction.

Just over the Summit I witness something that utterly shocks me: that white Subaru simply veers off the freeway, goes airborne, rolls, and disappears into slide alder and marsh grass! It went from the left lane, crossed all three (maybe four) lanes, without braking or slowing, and simply flew - doing a full rotation - off the shoulder going at least 65 miles per hour and down a slope. 

My mind is slow to grasp what I've just seen. Really? Did I just see a car fly and flip off the shoulder or was it some strange vision? In the second or two I'm thinking this, I see that black Prius brake; I instantly know that the driver of the Prius also witnessed the same thing. As I brake and move to the shoulder, so does the Prius, just ahead of me. Somehow, having that Prius pull over validates what I've seen. It really did happen. Oh my god, the driver of that Subaru...my heart starts racing because given the speed with which it flew off the shoulder, given that the car rolled...I don't know what I'll find, I just know I have to stop, to help.

I pull onto the shoulder, hit the hazard lights button, and leave my car, slamming my door behind me. I don't even wait to see who is in the Prius, or whether they are getting out of their car. Who knows what the dogs think as I dash away without a word! I'm parked a tenth of a mile or two past where I last saw the car fly off the highway. I start running up the shoulder, but can't see any sign of the Subaru: the car has completely disappeared into the brush. Cars, trucks...all sorts of vehicles pass by, not even slowing down in curiosity at me dashing up the shoulder.

It feels surreal.

I hear footsteps behind me. I look over my shoulder as I keep running to see a young woman in black slacks and coat; she's running, too, and actually catching up to me. The Prius driver. Good runner, I think. In her thirties, nicely dressed. And smarter than me - she has her cell phone to her ear. Both of us still running - and knowing we have the same goal in mind, to reach that Subaru as quickly as possible - I hear her talking to the 911 dispatcher, telling them about the accident. She catches me and asks me, "Do you know what mile post we're at?" I stop. Obviously the dispatcher has asked her, to try to pin point our location. "No," I reply, "but we're just past the Summit, between Snoqualmie and Hyak." The woman gives that information to dispatch, and adds, "Hurry. Black Prius, and a white..." She looks at me, a silent inquiry about the make of my vehicle so aid can locate us. "Tribute," I tell her. She repeats it. "We might need aid," she adds to dispatch. The thought of an injured or even dead driver in that Subaru hangs ominously in the air between us.

We reach a point on the shoulder where, looking closely and knowing where to look, we can see some small bits of white of a vehicle through the slide alders and brush, and clothes and stuff strewn all through the trees. But only because we saw the car exit the freeway there do we know it's there; no one else would have noticed, even if they were casually walking along the shoulder. It's crazy, how well the car is hidden from view.

There is a car down there; just to the right of the tall pine trees.
"Hello!" I yell as loudly as I can, to be heard over the roar of the vehicles rushing by us on the freeway. It flits through my mind that no other drivers are stopping, despite seeing two women running up the shoulder of the freeway where such a sight is hardly an every day occurrence. I'm also concerned because despite the time it has taken us to park and run up the shoulder, there's no movement down in that thicket of shrubs and trees, no calls for help. It's too noisy up on the freeway, and too quiet down there.

"Hello! Are you okay?" I hear a faint reply, although I can't tell what is said. "Are you alright?" I yell again, and this time I'm rewarded with a faint, "Yes; I'm okay!" It's a female. Odd, I think - when I passed that vehicle on the way up to the Pass, I could have sworn it was a young male driving. 

"Are you hurt?" I yell. "No, I'm fine," the woman replies. A  feel a huge wave of relief; I wasn't sure what I'd find in that car.

The driver of the black Prius relays this information to the dispatcher, and is told help is on the way. She ends the call, and we then head down toward the car together. We can't get through the thick underbrush on our first try, so we go back toward the shoulder to find and follow the path the car took - where the brush and swamp grass is mashed down. It's wet, and mucky, but we persist, pushing down and high-stepping over the slide alder and other shrubs. I notice that the Prius woman is wearing nice black dress shoes with low heels, and am impressed that she doesn't care that they're probably going to be ruined. Just before we reach the Subaru, we start finding clothing and other stuff strewn in the tree branches. It's a macabre scene - ordinary, every day clothing hanging from branches haphazardly, crazily. I feel like I'm in some horror movie.

We get within a few feet of the rear end of the Subaru, which thankfully came to a stop right side up. I see something black resting in the marshy grass; it's a rear view mirror. I don't know why, but I pick it up. We keep approaching, not sure what we'll find.

"Are you injured," I call out? "No," the woman says from inside the Subaru, "I'm fine." The Prius woman asks, "Did you fall asleep?" Reasonable question, I think. "No," the driver replies. "I saw the exit, hit my brakes, and next thing...." Somehow this explanation doesn't make any sense to me - there wasn't any exit nearby, and I didn't see any brake lights on the Subaru before it left the freeway, but since I don't know if she's alone and at this point I'm most concerned about injuries, I ask, "Is there anyone else in the car?" She replies, "No, just my cat." Ever the animal lover, I ask, "Is the cat okay?" The woman replies, "Yes; she's in a crate. I can't believe I almost killed my cat!" I'm actually relieved by her rather flip answer; she must be okay to be cracking jokes. 

The Prius woman and I are now right at the rear of the Subaru. We're covered in mud and moisture from bushwhacking through the brush and marsh grass. We can't get any closer.The driver and her cat are still in the car, however. I can see the rear passenger door's window is blown out, which explains how all the clothing and debris exited. The rear left corner of the car body is crumpled. I can't see the rest of the car, as it's enveloped in tree branches and brush. I don't know if the windshield is still in place. It came to rest just inches from two big pine trees. This is one lucky woman. And cat.

"Can you get out of the car?" I ask. "No," the driver says, as I hear some movement from inside the Subaru. I see that the driver's door is close to one of the big tree trunks she narrowly missed; so close that she won't be able to open it. "Try opening the rear passenger door," I tell her. "It won't open," she says, but tries again and it opens with a horrible creak of metal on metal. She starts crawling out, and to our relief, seems all in one piece. 

"Are you sure you're not injured?" the Prius woman asks her. The driver, who appears to be in her mid-twenties, stops when she's part way through the rear passenger door, stands up on the frame and holds up her right hand, waving it in front of her face. She says that besides a cut on her hand, she seems to be fine. She's sort of giggling, which under the circumstances seems appropriate; it is fully dawning on her what happened and how amazing it is she isn't hurt. I can't see any blood on her hand, so the cut must not be too serious. She's tall and thin and is able to wiggle her way the rest of the way out of the partially opened rear passenger door on her own. We assure her that aid is on the way, that we should stay put until it arrives. While it's cold, it isn't raining. The driver seems in good spirits, despite the reality of her situation. Or maybe, for her, reality still hasn't set in. To me and the Prius woman, it looks pretty dire. The car is totaled. Her belongings are flung about, wet, muddy and a mess.

Without discussion, the Prius woman and I realize that we need to stay with the driver; she just seems a bit odd. We both start pulling clothing out of the trees, apparently each of us feeling a need to do something helpful. We hand it, in big clumps, to the driver. I'm not sure what she does with it; maybe throws it all back into the Subaru. I keep thinking how bizarre a scene this is. I'm plucking all sorts of clothing from branches, including ... a black lace thong! I briefly hope that the Subaru driver's clothes are clean. There are other items strewn onto the ground in addition to clothing; it registers that it's odd how much stuff she had in her car, how it all went flying when her car rolled, landing in the trees. Was she living in her car?

The woman asks the Prius woman for her phone. "I'm supposed to be at work at 2:30," she says by way of explanation. Another bit of oddness registers with me; it's about 10:30 a.m., so...where was this woman going, and where does she work? Why the car full of clothes, and her cat, if she's going to work? I don't ask any of the questions that are clouding my mind, but nothing is making sense.

The Prius woman hands the driver her phone. While the driver is placing her call, I tell the Prius woman that I'm going back up to the freeway shoulder so aid can find us quickly; she agrees this is a good idea, given how hidden the Subaru is from the road. I also mention that I've got three dogs in my car who are probably completely wigged out by now. The Prius woman nods in understanding, and I leave her to babysit the Subaru driver.

I stumble through the mucky grass and shrubs, back up to the freeway shoulder. I stand there for a couple minutes, looking out for aid cars, watching the traffic whoosh by at 60-70 miles per hour. I'm starting to feel chilled, and notice how my clothes are wet and smeared with some rust-colored gunk. Again, I'm amazed - and angered - that no other drivers bother to stop and inquire whether I need any help. Then I begin to think how frequently good Samaritans and aid personnel are injured or killed on freeway shoulders when a driver plows into them; I start worrying about my own dogs in my car, parked on the shoulder. I jog back to my car to find anxious dogs relieved that I've returned. Still, no aid has arrived. I decide to back my car up the shoulder, closer to the spot where the Subaru left the freeway, so that it's driver - who is likely in shock - has a warm car to sit in, if necessary, awaiting the aid cars.

This is the actual path of the Subaru and how the Prius driver and I were able to get to the car and driver through the slide alder and brush. Note that even from here you can't see the Subaru where it came to rest, but you can detect the faint car-wide path through the plants, in the center of the photo.
Within a couple minutes of my repositioning my car, putting on a jacket and standing on the shoulder again, I spy a trooper coming down the freeway. I flag him over and he pulls in right behind my car. Another quickly joins us. After explaining the situation, I point to where the Subaru, its driver, and the Prius woman are, hidden in the shrubs and trees. "We've had a couple of fatalities, right here," one trooper tells me. "That's why these cable barriers were installed." To myself, I say, yeah well, those cables clearly didn't work; they only allowed the Subaru to gain altitude and roll before landing way down the bank.

Aid arrives. Wimpy cable barriers on the right.
I give my name and contact information to one of the troopers. He then tells me they'll take if from here, and I can go. I notice how young this trooper is; just a baby, I think. God, I'm getting old.

I watch the troopers head down into the swampy brush toward the Subaru driver and the Prius woman. Feeling there's nothing more I can do, I return to my car. Then I think, "Well, I've invested this much time, I might as well get a couple of photos and turn this into a blog entry!" Grabbing my iPhone,I snap a few photos from the freeway shoulder. I feel guilty, so don't take any that would identify the Subaru driver. I wouldn't want my photo taken under similar circumstances. But I do get a photo of one of the troopers carrying the cat in its carrier to safety.

All's well that ends well.

The dogs and I head on down the freeway, our long day just made a bit longer. But that's okay; I feel good that I was one of two who stopped to help a stranger in need. I can only hope that someone else would do the same for me should I ever find myself in such an accident.

I pull into the next rest area, just past Cle Elum. I feel conspicuous as I get out of my car, my clothes filthy and spotted with what look like huge rust spots. I hope it all comes out in the laundry. In the bathroom, as I'm washing that rust-colored gunk acquired during the bushwhack from my hands, I hear, "There you are!" Looking up, I see Prius woman! We share our feelings about the incident, agreeing that the Subaru driver is incredibly lucky to be unhurt, as is her cat. We also agree that her story just doesn't quite make sense, that neither of us noticed any attempt to slow or brake before the Subaru went airborne off the shoulder, that there's no exit where she claimed there was. We also agreed that it was odd that no one else stopped to offer help. We joke about our filthy clothing. I notice what nice green eyes she has, a friendly smile and intelligent face. Funny how those details didn't register back at the scene of the accident. Tunnel vision, I guess. We say our goodbyes along with wishes for safe travels. Back at my car, I realize I should have at least asked her name. Since I didn't, she will simply be the Prius Woman, Good Samaritan. 

As I continued to reflect on the incident over the ensuing hours and days (trust me - it's hard to get such an incident out of your head), I decided that the Subaru driver either fell asleep at the wheel, was distracted (cell phone? texting?) or impaired (drugs - legal, or illegal - or alcohol?) in some way. There's no other reasonable explanation for how and why her car flew off the highway without braking in the spot that it did. It wasn't raining then, the roadway, while wet, wasn't slick. Nothing unexpected happened to cause her to swerve suddenly; she just did. I also feel she probably is homeless, or moving to start a new job; how else to explain all the clothing and stuff in her car, and her cat? If she was just driving to work, she wouldn't take her cat in a crate. Her cluelessness, or impairment, probably accounts for her lack of injury after a rollover accident. If you're going to be tossed around - Maytag-ed, as we used to call it in white water kayaking - it's best to be relaxed, for injuries are more likely to occur if you're bracing yourself, limbs rigid. 

I'm so thankful for Prius Woman. While I would have stopped regardless, having another human being there with me, as we bushwhacked down toward who knows what, was incredibly comforting and gave me courage. As Prius Woman said at the rest stop, "I'm so glad you thought to call out and ask if she was okay. I had visions of finding a bloody mess." Indeed. Clearly, Prius Woman was thankful to have me there, too. Not fun, contemplating coming upon something gruesome while offering aid. But easier to act when another - even a stranger - is willing to go with you. 

And I'm thankful for my dogs. They calmed me as a drove away from the scene. At the rest stop just past Cle Elum, after the chance meeting with Prius Woman in the restroom, I returned to my car and hugged them and gave them treats. As we continued on our way toward Idaho, I told them all about my adventure. As always, they listened.

Rebecca WallickComment