Saturday, December 20, 2008

Truck Fire

Came across a pretty vicious car fire on the interstate yesterday, and its led me to reflect on the coming year.

It was thursday afternoon.  We were headed west on I-40 about 20 minutes outside of Chapel Hill, very near Mebane.  For I-40 travelers, Mebane is a terrific off-ramp of gas stations.  Always the cheapest or near-cheapest gas between Raliegh and Charlotte.  I-40 is 8 lanes wide at this point (4 each way - I've never been clear on the right way to refer to a freeway, by its total lanes (8) or one way (4) - kinda one of those "is 'easterly winds' from the east or to the east" deals).  There is no median except for emergency pull out lanes, with the two sides jammed up against each other, seperated only by a concrete wall barrier (hip-to-chest high).

My mind was on the stop in Mebane we were about to make for gas and a snack.  I stopped at the same place - the Sheetz gas station - every week over the summer when I weekend-communted between Ral and Clt (that's the Charlotte airport's ID letters - CLT - you can look it up).  I was thinking about the 8 hours in the car ahead of us, the chaos of the trip in general and the thick traffic I was - semis, crazy commuting traffic, etc - when I saw on the other side of the road a pickup truck clearly just starting to catch fire.

It was on the far shouder of the road where it had obvioulsy just come to a stop.  Flames were starting to come out of the hood, but there wasn;t much smoke yet.  It obviously had just started.  THe cabin looked like it had a lot of smoke in it.

What I didn't see was the driver running around in panic or standing by in horror.  In fact, I didn't see anybody at all outside the truck.

So I picked up on all that in the, perhaps, 8 seconds I had as we approached it.  When we drew up nearest it, passing the spot by, I looked closely at the passenger compartment.  And I think I saw a guy in there.

THinking about it now, later, the door was closed - which has to be a sure-fire indicator that nobody had yet got out, right?

Now, seeing what I thought was a guy, I had a couple fast thoughts:  was anyone obvioulsy already there trying to help?  Nope.  No other stopped cars.

How about traffic slowing down, meaning someone would be about to help?  Nope.  Traffic on that side - thick and full across all 4 lanes - was still rolling past at highway speed.  No sea of brakelights.

Well...  cops or firefighter?  Nope.  No lightbars to be seen.

Now I'm perhaps 5 seconds past the scene, and my mind is racing more:

The cabin is full of smoke already.  Regardless what you see on TV, a person can stay conscious in a cabin full of smoke for maybe 15 seconds.  Whoever is in that cabin had best open that door and roll out by the time i get done thinking this, or he's dead.
   Or somebody can run up and open the door and maybe - maybe - save them.

Ya know... somebody.

And so now - still, maybe 7 seconds past the place - my mind rips through the math:

I'm 2 lanes to the right, so I'd have to swerve over two to get to my median.  10 seconds.  THen stop.  100 yards.  Then get out - and its a barely-drivable median-lane, so the door may not open against the wall.  Hop the wall.  Run back.  Wait/wave for traffic to stop to get across 4 lanes of busy traffic.

Im in sandals and a polo shirt - can't kick or elbow a window in those and really, can I kick a window?  Is that even remotely possible?

That's 3 minutes away, at least...  so the guy is gonna be already out or dead.  On top of that (and here my mind, I think, started buring off adreniline by really diving into the worse-case), if you get there and he's dead, he might not be alone in that damn truck cuz the only reason I can think of that somebody wouldn't bail out of a smoke-filled car is because I'm too busy trying to un-fuck the buckles on a kids seat, and is that something you want rattling around your head for the next 50 years?

I got my own occupied carseat in this seat, thanks.

And the road is rolling past at 100+ feet per second and with the spot still visible in my rearview mirror, it hits me that this - me making any effort at all to effect what I just say - is not going to happen.

Quartermile.  Halfmile.  And its gone.

After a minute or so, Mandy wonders if we should call 911.  No, I say.  Somebody for sure will have done that.  Cuz you can count on people to lift thier cell phones to help.

So I spent several minutes wondering, calculating:  that truck was, at least as we passed, no more than 50 feet away.  Was it truly unreachable?  My instincts calculated speed, distance and safety - so how many more seconds of lead time would I have needed back up the road?  Or how many fewer lanes of traffic?  If it had been a wide, grass median?  Or if M and J weren't in the car?  or if I was wearing better shoes and jeans?

Or: Why didn't I instantly hit the brakes when I saw flames and look for an open lane?

Was I looking for a way to do it, or was I looking for a way not to?  And, as always - as with all things - once you miss that key second, you don't need reasons anymore because the chance is gone.

It was a fitting way to open the last week of 2008, because for me this was the year of close calls.  More than any other year of my life, a long list of things almost happened for me, to me or with me, but in the end didn't.  There were jobs I almost got but didn't because I slipped up in the last possible interview;  there were jobs I almost got and nailed all the interviews but the economy evaporated.  There were good nights out I missed because earlier that week i'd been too lazy to line up a babysitter.  There were weekend trips I set up that dissolved in a blizzard that cancelled every flight on the east coast.
   There were people I could have been nicer to, people I could have taken more seriously.  Things I could have written but didn't.
   And there was the truck fire.

Most, of course, didn't matter and several turned out to be blessings.  A couple of them, though, stung a bit.

And so the final thing is this:  not stopping - or not trying to stop - for the truck was an easy, wise and safe decision for me, surrounded by my fragile family, rushing traffic and rushing concrete.  In fact, it was hardly a decion at all, and one that would never be wrong if you made it a thousand times over.

  Unless, just one time out of those thousand, you were the guy in the truck.

Next post will be to fill in some thoughts on the picture below.

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