Thursday, August 9, 2007

When things go wrong... Part III

The scenery was flying by, and I was honking my horn going by workers on reflex, not consciously, as I contemplated the problem before me. If I had one of the company pickups I could load people in the back, but I didn’t.

Nothing for it, then, they’ll just have to sit on laps.

I was headed for the south end of the site to pick up a bunch of civilians, and haul them into one of the worst scenes of crunched metal and injured people I’d ever seen, even on TV. Somehow, it just felt wrong to be the one who was going to take them into that.

“Boss Lady, you got a copy?”

“10-4, what do you need Farmgirl?”

“I’m headed south to pick up some civvys, say they’ve got training, and haul them down to the hole. Paramedic cleared it.”

“10-4, you should have some extra flaggers down there too, I know you know what to do with them. Set up the detour at 116, for the semis. By then you should have Tina there to take over the organization, and Owner Lady will have the north. I’m gonna want you in the hole. We gotta clear out some of the vehicles that weren’t directly involved.”

Boss Lady sounded apologetic. I wanted to snarl at her. I knew what to do, out here. I could keep my game face on and deal with problems as they arose in a calm manner. I wasn’t sure I could maintain that in the middle of the chaos in the hole.

Huh, we’re not calling it “the accident” or “the gigantic, screaming clusterfuck in the middle”.. we’re just calling it “the hole.” Yay for distancing tactics, I guess.

“10-4, Boss Lady. Have I told you lately that I hate you?”

“Not lately, you can tell me when we’re done here.”

“Bet on it. Do you want me to bring an extra flagger down?”

“No, we’re gonna be short handed as it is. Just get yourself down there.”

“10-4.”

I reached the south end, and stopped at the flagger’s station. I grabbed a notebook and a pen on my way out of the car and called the flaggers who were standing around over to me as I slapped the pad down on my trunk and began drawing a map.

“Ok here’s what we’re gonna do. All the cars that will, turn ‘em around and head ‘em back to town. If they want to sit tight they can, but make sure that they know that it will be hours before the highway is cleared. Will, not might. Explain what’s going on in as short a manner as you can. Big accident, highway totally blocked, gonna be a while, that kind of thing. Don’t take the time to chit chat, offer them the choice, and tell them that if they turn around and go back to town, they have to pull over and stop if they see emergency vehicles of any kind coming from either direction. Remind them that it’s the law. Semis, if they want to sit, let them sit. If they’re antsy, tell them the only place we can send them is down 116 into Kansas, and they should take a moment to plot out where they’re going. If they take the first right in Kansas they’ll go back to Johnson, take a right at Johnson on 160 and they’ll come back into Colorado, and back to this highway south of town. They can hit the truck stop there, or they can go whatever the hell way they want to when they get to Kansas, but they CAN NOT come back. Don’t try to tell every semi, grab a couple and have them start broadcasting on the CB. Then grab a couple more further down the line.”

I looked up, noticing faces for the first time. Most of them I recognized, and there were enough of them that I trusted to do things right to cover the important spots. Good. I designated two to start down the line, and talk to people, tell them what was going on.

“Tell them if they’re going to stay, to pull off on the shoulder so that we can keep traffic flowing. By the time we get things moving, we should only be seeing semis up here. You,” and I pointed to the flagger for the south end, “will hold traffic here until I give you the go-ahead. Do not send me traffic until I tell you to. And don’t talk on the radio unless you absolutely have to. That’s all the battery we have.” He nodded.

“You guys,” and I indicated the two I’d designated to do the PR part, and talk to people, “be polite, but firm. If anyone gives you problems, you’ll have to deal with it yourselves, we don’t have enough hands. Leapfrog each other until you run out of line, and then come back up here to catch the ones we haven’t gotten out yet. Make sure the semis know that the speed limit is still forty five, and anyone we suspect of speeding, we will write down the license number, company, and truck number, and we’ll report them. We can get the ticket mailed to them, and we’ll report them to their company, as well. Now, you guys get to work.”

They took off for their vehicles, one flipping around to park two or three cars back and run back towards the front of the line, and the other heading further down.

“What about us?” One of the flaggers I didn’t recognize asked.

“You guys are going to be the backup system. You’re going to 116 and form a human wall to turn the trucks. Tina will be here soon and she’ll have more for you to do but for now just get them headed for Kansas. Watch for our workers and ambulances coming out. Got it? Good, go.”

They left, and I climbed back into my car to go find the people I was supposed to cram in and haul back to where I really didn’t want to go.

I spotted the vest I’d loaned out, more than recognized the guy, and stopped near him.

“They’re all gathered over there, and ready to go.”

“Good, give me back my vest, and get back in your car. You can pull off on the shoulder and wait or you can head back to town but whatever you do, don’t get out of your car and go wandering around on the highway again. You can stretch your legs in the ditch. I appreciate your help, and I’m sure everyone else does too.”

“I’ll wait, that town is going to be packed.”

“Fine.”

I had climbed out of my car during this exchange, and stepped between two cars to find my would-be heroes standing in a tight group, introducing themselves and shifting nervously on their feet.

“Good, you’re all acquainted. I hope you’re feeling friendly, come with me.”

“WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM?!?”

I turned to see a big man, chest puffed out and potbelly straining the buttons of his plaid work shirt, standing behind me, looking sharply down at me.

“Pardon?”

“I said, what the hell is your problem, I’ve been sitting here for an hour and a half and I want to know what the fuck kind of operation you people are running!”

Oh, great.

“Sir, we’re running a construction site. However, there’s been an accident within the site and the highway is completely blocked. If your vehicle is a car or pickup, please feel free to turn around and head back to town to wait. Our best estimation is that it’s going to be hours before we can clear the highway. If your vehicle is a semi, we can re-direct you over into Kansas and you can make your way from there.” I tried to turn back to the group of people, but he grabbed my shoulder.

“You bitch, I can’t go to Kansas, I have to be in Denver tonight!”

“Sir, please take your hand off of me.” My patience was running thin.

“The hell I will!” And his grip tightened. The good samaritans started to step forward, doubtless to save me from the big bad man.

“Yes, sir, you will.” And I reached up and grabbed his pinky, bending it back towards his wrist until he released me. He growled and raised his hand as if to hit me and my patience broke.

“Listen, asshole, hitting me won’t change the fact that you don’t have a fucking choice. You can sit your happy ass on the shoulder, or you can go to Kansas. Period. And, if you swing on me, I promise you I will not take it meekly, and I will hurt you. Now, you’re holding me up and I have a job to do, a job that could save people’s lives. Get the fuck back into whatever smelly fucking seat you were in five minutes ago, and get the hell out of my face.”

The guy stepped closer to me, looking down, trying to intimidate me with his height, and said, “You couldn’t hurt me, you probably punch like a gnat.”

I stepped closer to him, craning my neck to look up into his beard stubbled face. I had to convince this guy that he should be a little more respectful, and do what he was told, and I had to do it fast.

Damnit, I’m going to have to pull the psycho act…

“I didn’t say that I would punch you. I would never trade punches with someone your size. No, what I’ll do, is I’ll grab your nuts, that is, if I can find them, and I’ll take them home with me.” I pulled my handy-dandy work pocket knife out of my pocket and flicked it open.

“And then, sir, I’ll nail them to my fucking wall.” And I pointed the knife at his manly bits.

“You wouldn’t.” His voice had lost some of its edge.

“Do you want to try me?” And I gave him a sunny smile. “I’ve been looking for a new addition to my collection, you know.”

He looked at me like I was crazy, and went back to his truck.

“Come on, guys, time’s a wasting.”

I managed to get them all stuffed in, although there were two more than I had been told, and it would look like a circus act when we got to where we were going. First though, I had a stop to make.

I pulled over at 116 and jumped out, making sure that everyone there knew what they were supposed to do, before I turned off my radio and handed it over.

“Leave it turned off unless one of the others dies. When Tina gets here… Oh, there she is.”

I saw one of the company vehicles coming towards the intersection, and waited a couple of moments to talk to Tina, Owner Lady’s daughter.

“Hey, you’ve got two spares here, I was gonna have them help turn people off, we’re heading semis over to Kansas, turning cars or making them pull off on the shoulder. Semis can pull off and wait too, if they want to. Here’s a spare radio, tell south end when you want him to start sending you trucks.”

“Got it, go.”

I went.

On the way down to the hole my stomach grumbled a complaint, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten yet.

I’ll grab my lunch and see if I can’t grab a few bites in between shuffling irate cars.

I popped over the hill and parked in the same driveway I’d been using, nice and out of the way, and got everyone out of my car while I popped my trunk again and grabbed a plastic bag and a couple of bottles of water out of my cooler. I slid the bottles into the big inside pockets of my vest, and looped the handles of the bag over my wrist. The folks I’d hauled in had already headed for the nearest ambulance, and an EMT was pointing them in the right directions. I looked towards the north side of the hole and found Boss Lady’s truck.

I picked my way through the wreckage, climbing over a couple of hoods and doing my best to stay out of the way of everyone, and to block out everything but the path I was taking, and finally made it to the other side to find Boss Lady bent down talking through the window of a car. I stood back to let her finish with them while I fished in the bag and pulled out my sandwitch. I scarfed a few bites before she was done, and asked her around a mouthful what the plan was.

“We’re just getting them backed up to the hog farm and heading them out the north end, at this point. The troopers gave me some contact cards for the ones that got bumped. If they don’t need medical attention, give them a card,” and she handed me a stack which I slipped into a vest pocket, “and send them on.”

“Got it, I’ll go up and start backing them up.”

I rewrapped my sandwich and started jogging up the hill, pausing at each car and asking if anyone needed medical attention, explaining briefly that they would be backing up and turning around, to watch while they were backing for my hand signals when they got to the side road that we were using to turn them around, and then moving on to the next.

When I reached a small tan four door car, I noted that they’d been rear-ended, the trunk was crunched, and there were two kids in the back seat, crying. Mom and dad looked like they might be in a little shock.

“Hey, guys, where does it hurt?” I didn’t want to have them move much if they had injuries, and I kept my voice calm and soft.

“What? No, we’re not hurt, just…” and dad gestured towards the wreckage, swarming with red and blue lights and the figures of the emergency services people. Hell, they had a good clear view from here.

“Ok, how about the kids?”

Mom seemed to wake from her daze, and tried to comfort her children, from her manner I guessed that she’d been trying and knew it wasn’t going to work.

“They’re a little shook up, but mostly they’re hungry and don’t understand what’s going on. We didn’t stop for lunch in the last town, we were going to hit a restaurant in the next one…” and he trailed off. “My god, it could have been us.”

“Sir, here’s a contact card for the state patrol, you’re going to have to call them and give them your information. They may want a statement from you.” I handed him the card, and looked over to mom, digging in the plastic bag that was still hanging from my wrist.

“Ma’am, I have some food here…”

She eyed me speculatively for a moment.

“It’s my lunch, Ma’am, I’ll take a bite if you like.”

Those kids were hungry, and upset, and I couldn’t leave them starving.

“No, its ok, thank you so much, you’re a good person.” Mom held her hand out for the sandwich, and I tore the portion that I’d already bitten out of off and handed it and a bag of chips to her. I stuffed the portion I’d torn off into my mouth, explained what I needed them to do, and headed off to the next car.

My stomach rumbled a complaint.

Too bad. They were kids, and they were hungry, and god only knows when they’ll get to somewhere they can get food, I told my stomach sternly.

I was almost to the end of the line, and went through the rest of the cars quickly. I began backing the last one up, walking beside the driver’s window until we got to the side road. I moved the barricades that we had set up to shut this road off to traffic, and guided them back with hand signals, before waving them out to the north and turning to the next vehicle, which I’d stopped with a hand signal, palm towards them.

Each car was a test in creative hand signals, since none of them knew the ones common to road construction and farm workers everywhere, and I stayed focused on my task until suddenly there weren’t any more cars to back out, and Boss Lady was walking up to me. I shook out arms suddenly numb and shaking, and glanced at my watch, wondering how long I’d been waving them around.

Holy crap, over an hour.

“Good work, Farmgirl. Now comes the fun part.” And she looked towards the bottom of the hole, where people were still swarming around the wreckage, although now there was only one ambulance.

“They get all the bad ones out?” I asked Boss Lady, and she shook her head.

“They’re coming back.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Gerald?”

“Haven’t had time to ask, and I haven’t seen Ron either,” she shrugged. “There were some of the pave crew involved, it’s not pretty.”

“I bet not.”

We started walking down the hill, and I knew that my shoulders were slumped and my steps slow.

When we neared the bottom of the slope, I made sure that my back was straight at my stride sure. I’d been using authority I didn’t really have ever since this all started, and I knew that a confident posture would make people listen much faster than any actual authority.

Boss Lady and I headed for the nearest gray-blue uniform, and got told that someone needed to handle the paving supervisor. I looked around and saw him waving his arms and shouting at another officer. I told Boss Lady I’d handle it, and she nodded gratefully as I walked towards the argument.

“And what in the hell am I supposed to do with this?!?” The supervisor waved a hardhat in the face of the officer, and I saw with a jolt that it was Steve’s, his name written in black marker across the back of it, and that it had reddish brown smears on it. I choked back sudden tears and stepped close enough for them to notice me. When I did that, I came to where I could see the mess in front of the paver, and had to look away quickly.

“My best advice is that you give it to the EMT’s when they’re ready for him,” and I pointed to the mess in front of the paver, “so they can use it to gather up what’s left of his head.” My voice shook a little but my gaze didn’t waver from the supervisor’s face. I watched it slowly turn green.

“You’re sick.”

“And you’re being an asshole and interfering with people who might be able to help the people who can be helped. You stop, and I will.”

“I have to get back into production…”

“Because you’re worried about your early completion bonus, sure, whatever. Problem is, it’s not gonna fuckin happen until all of this is taken care of. So, the more cooperative you are, the faster it all gets done and you can get back to being an uncaring, money driven asshole. Either help, or get the hell out of the way, or I swear to whatever diety you care to name I will move you out of the way!” My temper had snapped and I was ready to knock him out and stash him in the ditch somewhere. My face must have been doing something concerning, because the officer half raised his hand towards me in a calming gesture.

The supervisor eyed me for a moment more, and stalked off to his pickup where it was still parked in the ditch.

“You ok?” The officer looked concerned and I realized that I was shaking with anger.

“Fine, just pissed. Was that guy,” I nodded my head towards the green pickup, still sitting with its tires sunken in slowly hardening concrete, “the hit and run from up north?”

“Yeah, and he tried to run.” The officer’s voice dropped to a growl and I noticed the footprints in the slab near the pickup.

“I hope you took him down in a patch of cactus.” I said.

“Unfortunately there wasn’t any near enough.” He smiled slightly.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Got any training?” He sounded hopeful as he turned to walk back towards the other cars.

“No, but I can take directions.”

He shook his head. “No one free to give you directions. See if you can keep the ones we haven’t gotten to calm. Some of ‘em are just bruised up, and they’re last on the list.”

“Got it. Anyone ever make it down in the ravine to check the car that went over?” I dreaded the answer.

“Yeah, they didn’t make it.”

“Hell.”

I spent most of the rest of the afternoon kneeling in open car doors, talking to people, drawing them out and trying to get their minds away from the carnage around them. There were pools of blood, and a few bodies, scattered around everywhere. Wreckers sat at the top of the hills on each side of the hole, waiting for an officer to tell them which car to get. They were just dragging them up into the ditches for the moment, getting them out of the way. They’d start hauling them out later.

I finally looked up to notice that the car I was at was the last one, and the ambulance was pulling in to take care of them, and probably haul them to the hospital. The guy had a broken arm, and his girlfriend was nearly hysterical, in spite of my attempts to calm her down. I nodded to the driver of the ambulance, and stepped away from the car, looking around for what to do next.

Looks like state patrol is finishing up their measurements, most of them are packing up. I wonder if I can ask the ambulance guys about our boys? Worth a shot.

I walked up to the one who had been driving, where he was handing things to the other guy. An air splint, maybe.

“You got any info on the construction guys that got pulled out?”

“Which ones?” His eyes looked tired and bleak.

“Any of them.” My voice was hoarse, and I realized that it must be after shift change, the sun was sitting on the horizon.

“The old guy from the silver bug should be ok, he had a broken leg and a couple of cracked ribs, possibly a mild concussion. Three or four of the guys without the pants” he nodded at my own yellow pants “had pretty severe injuries, lots of them got cuts and bruises from shit flying off the cars. A couple didn’t make it long enough for us to get here.”

My eyes burned, and I wanted to ask about Steve, but I knew that this guy wouldn’t know him.

“What about the other guy with the pants?”

“I don’t know.”

“Thanks anyway.” I started to turn away, and he saw a bandanna sticking out of my back pocket.

“Hey, are you the girl that gave the hi-po the bandannas and shirts?”

“Yeah.” I was tired, sore, and feeling pretty dejected.

“That cop was pissed that you took off.”

“Yeah, I know.” Anger started to stir, and then just died. I was too tired to hold on to it.

“Those bandannas? They saved a couple of lives. Couple people would have bled out if someone hadn’t rigged tourniquets out of them.”

I blinked at him.

“You did good.”

“Oh. Good.”

I walked away, in a slight daze. As I passed the paver, I looked down and caught a glint of metal on the slab. A ring. I picked it up and looked at it, hoping I could identify it somehow and get it back to its owner… or their family.

It was a plain band of yellow gold, tarnished with blood. I wiped most of it off with the tail of my shirt, and saw that there was an inscription on the inside.

Steve and Tracy, Forever.

I lost it, sat down right there and bawled into my hands. I rocked back and forth and cried over the stupidity of it all.

I felt arms wrap around me and heard Boss Lady’s voice in my ear.

“Its ok, kiddo, I know, I know.”

I cried for a few more minutes, and then got a grip on myself. I looked at Boss Lady and held up the ring to show her, before I slipped it into my pocket.

“We resetting?” I asked. My voice was thick, but clear enough.

“No, night crew is here, they’ll handle it. Lets go home, get some rest.”

“Ok.”

We started walking towards my car, and Boss Lady threw an arm around my shoulders.

“You did good today, kiddo. I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“I love you, kiddo.”

“I love you too, Mom.”



Author's Note:

This is a fictional story, based on fact. I've used a site that I've actually worked, and all of the things that happened in the story, have happened on a construction site at an accident. Some of them didn't happen directly to me, but a lot of them did. Not all of the procedures used to handle traffic in this story conform to state and federal regulations, but I've seen them used in emergency situations. There are a lot of things that I didn't get into the story, simply because I was writing it from a first person point of view, and I wouldn't have known about them in that situation.

Thanks to Farmmom for helping me put it all together. And for being Farmmom, of course.

7 comments:

Mark said...

I'll type more when I can see my keyboard again.

Anonymous said...

GREAT JOB KIDDO


Love ya, Mamaw

jon said...

You have a talent that only few are blessed with. Keep writing.

In case someone asks, tell them you have at least one fan.

Anonymous said...

Great job sweetheart. Having been there on these same accidents I almost sat down on the slab with ya ... again. And yes I am proud of ya (as always) and i do love ya.

Farmmom

Anonymous said...

Story's told well. I could type my opinions on the fatalities, impatience, and stupidity, but I'll leave those alone this time. I will say I think anyone who's mad at road construction should read this and see what the crews go through.

Do you have more road construction stories?

mustanger

OK Katrina said...

I was doing good, keeping my composure, until that last sentence--you got me.

Excellent story. Spreading it out over several days was a great idea, it really built the suspense.

I must say that I'm sad and infuriated that needless tragedies like this one actually happen. Thank you for sharing your point of view.

One thing, for sure, I've learned from your writings: to be a more cautious, aware and patient driver. Thank you!

Joat said...

Excellent story, I wish I could write half as well, and with the ease that it seems like you can. One phrase really hit home:
"I’d been using authority I didn’t really have ever since this all started"
I've been one of the first on scene at many more bad traffic accidents than anyone who is not EMS police or fire should ever be. I'm talking either seeing the accident myself or coming up on it before emergency services is on the scene. I find myself giving orders and taking control of the situation not because I have any authority or special training but simply because someone needs to do it. I feel very lucky that I haven't had to deal with something that horrific and that I have been able to let go of my temporary authority as soon as the guys with the flashing lights showed up.