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crash

The three vehicles to my left all braked at the same time.

I had just come onto I-5 southbound from Route 520, heading home after dropping my friend Dave off at his hotel. I was headed for Exit 167, Mercer Street. The distance from the onramp coming from Route 520 to the offramp for Exit 167 is less than a mile; Google Maps is indicating it's approximately 0.7 miles. With the merge lanes from two onramps, first from Route 520 and then from Boylston Ave E, and one offramp to Mercer Street, there are five lanes of traffic throughout this segment of the highway. It's a dangerous section of highway because the onramp from Route 520 enters I-5 on the left side, then the Boylston Ave onramp comes in on the right side, then the Mercer Street offramp is on the right side. Anyone coming from Route 520 who wants to take the Mercer Street exit—a popular one, as it is the most direct route to Seattle Center, as well as the growing South Lake Union business district and the neighborhoods of Queen Anne and Fremont—has to cross four lanes from the left side of the highway to the right in a very short space, while watching not only for the regular flow of traffic but also vehicles entering and merging from Boylston Ave and vehicles already on the highway moving toward the Mercer Street exit.

In the past, I've often chosen to exit Route 520 at Harvard Ave E, just before it ends and merges onto I-5, and then drive around the north side of Lake Union in order to get home. That route avoids the difficult Mercer merge. However, it is also a little slower, since it mostly follows regular city streets rather than major arterials; in the summer there may be additional delays as both the University and Fremont bridges must be crossed to get back to my home, and they are subject to opening for water traffic. 

This night, I wanted to get home. I had laundry to finish, a journal post to make, and some other tasks as well. I chose to take the quicker route heading south around Lake Union, which meant getting onto I-5 southbound and doing the Mercer merge. After entering I-5, I did my best to cross over quickly yet carefully to the right lane so that I could take the Mercer Street exit, and got into that lane without incident. At that point, there was a vehicle in each of the three middle lanes to my left, just ahead of me. The lane in front of me was clear, with no other vehicles close by.

The three vehicles to my left all braked at the same time. They braked hard, their lights staying on and their speed dropping off quickly. I may have noticed a hint of rapid movement on the far left of the highway; I'm not sure now. I was still traveling at highway speed toward the exit offramp, and so quickly overtook the other vehicles to my left. As I did so, I looked in that direction, aware that something might be amiss for all three of those vehicles to break at once.

I looked over to see another car approaching my lane from the left side of the highway. "Approaching" is too slow and careful a word. This car appeared to be fully perpendicular to the flow of the highway traffic, as though it were coming from a side street at right angles to the highway. And it was easily still traveling at highway speeds, at least 60 miles per hour, like the rest of us. If it hadn't been, it surely would've been struck by at least one of the other vehicles to my left. In fact I do not know whether all of those vehicles did avoid it. I don't know why it was suddenly, shockingly, crossing over three lanes of traffic, headed for my lane. I do know that by the time I saw it, it was no longer in control.

The car was hurtling toward me, skidding by that point, its rear end swinging around in the initial southward direction of travel, the front end turning to face me, headlights shining on me where no headlights ought to have been. I had a momentary glimpse of people in the car. I believe I saw at least two, the driver and a passenger. I believe I saw them reared back in panic, perhaps screaming. I believe I moved my foot to the brake pedal and pushed down. I believe I too gave a short scream, recognizing what was about to happen. I believe, but it was all happening in a moment. I had no time to be sure. 

BAK.

Car crashes don't sound like they do in films, at least not from inside the car. There was no screeching of tires—there was no time for brakes to be hit hard enough for the screeching to begin. Inside the car, there was no sound of tinkling glass, no metallic clatter—that no doubt is due in part to today's vehicles being more plastic than metal—none of the usual sound effects. Instead, just a short, sharp, loud clash of two heavy, solid objects colliding, like a hammer hitting a solid wood post. Not a crash or a bash, not a wham or a bang. Short. Sharp. BAK!

BAK! The front of my car slammed into the front of the other vehicle. POW! The airbags exploded outward. BAK! The vehicle behind me in my lane slammed into my rear end.

Three sounds, two collisions with an automatic defense mechanism in the middle, but from my jumbled split-second perspective, it was all one collision. BAKPOWBAK. It was three or four images piled on top of each other: the car in front of me, headlights in my eyes; the sudden dimness as my car's hood was smashed inward and upward, blocking the windshield; the confusion as I found myself suddenly still, surprised to see the airbag already deflated in front of me, things strewn about, the windshield cracked, the car filling with smoke and stench, my ears ringing from the impact.

Some kind of smoke wafted about in the air; I hazily realized it was probably from the airbag deployment. Dazedly I pushed the button to lower my side window and get fresh air; nothing happened. Again hazily I realized the power was gone, of course, no lights on in the car, just the streetlight outside shining in. I tried the door handle, noting the door appeared to be its usual shape, and with a bit of a push got the door open a crack. The car still stunk with choking smoke. I pushed again and opened the door some more, and leaned out. There was a vehicle directly behind me, and a woman had just gotten out. She was standing by her front end and shrieking something, maybe something about her car, I wasn't sure. I shifted back into my car.

Some time about then, I realized my vision was blurry, my glasses were gone. I realized that my face had wet stickiness on it, and pulled out a tissue to dab at it, finding I was bleeding some. My knees hurt, I knew I must have banged them against the underside of the dashboard. I began to paw about for my glasses.

Someone was at my car's door, opening it wider, asking if I were okay. It was a policeman of some kind. It could not have been more than two minutes, maybe three, since the accident had occurred; he must have already been on the highway north of us and come by chance. He told me to stay put while he went to check the others. I wasn't going anywhere; I couldn't see, anyhow. I reached around, twisted about, trying to find my glasses. They weren't in my lap, not on the dashboard, not on the seat beside me, not on the floor in front of me or the passenger side floor as far as I could feel, not under the seats as far as I could feel. I knew not to leave my seat, so I couldn't check the back.

Meanwhile I gathered up some other things I could find. The garage door opener. My clip-on sunglasses, though they were useless without my missing glasses. The ashtray was lying on the passenger seat, or maybe the space between. It still had a quarter in it, the rest scattered somewhere else in the car. I left it on the seat. Somehow my original-model iPod, nearly nine years old, was still in its place, in the tray below the dashboard, below where the ashtray had shot out on impact; when I clicked a button, it lit up, still working. Pleased, I put that in my coat pocket, then as an afterthought unplugged its power adapter and pocketed that too. I pressed the button to eject the cassette adapter I used for playing the iPod in the car, but nothing happened; no power, of course. 

At some point the police officer came to ask me what happened, and I told him (much more briefly than this). He asked if I was hurt, if I wanted an ambulance; yes, of course. At some point an ambulance and a fire truck pulled up; I heard other sirens, maybe saw another police car speed up or speed past too. The officer took my license at one point, asked if I had my registration and insurance, said he'd get them out of the glove compartment later and not to worry about it. Other people came over; someone asked for my right hand, wrote a number four on it. A firefighter talked to me. I told someone that I understood I was probably going into shock, but my glasses were missing and I'd really like some help finding them as it would make me feel better. They promised to come back and help. 

The EMTs came over to talk to me. I told them I couldn't find my glasses, I thought they must have flown off into the back seat. Someone climbed in the back and looked around with his flashlight but couldn't find them; he leaned in and checked the front; we found one lens on the floor of the passenger seat, no sign of the frames or other lens. I dropped the one lens, clearly it didn't matter anymore. 

The EMTs said they were going to move me out of the car onto a board. The people wrenched my door open more, 90 degrees open. They eased in and shifted me around and got me onto the board, onto a stretcher, and strapped me down. They had asked what hospital I wanted to go to; I said it didn't matter much, my regular physicians were Swedish Medical Group, something, I couldn't quite remember the proper name. They consulted and said Swedish wouldn't take me, they didn't take accidents over 20 miles per hour, and said they could take me to Harborview if that was okay. It didn't matter to me. The EMTs introduced themselves. Ashley was the driver. She seemed to be pretty, though I couldn't see her clearly without my glasses. I've already forgotten the guy's name—Bruce? Ben? something completely not starting with B?—who rode in the back with me.

I wanted to see what my car looked like. Maybe I even wished then that I could get a photo of it. I couldn't see it; I was pulled out and strapped down and loaded into the ambulance. I didn't know what happened, why that car appeared out of nowhere, hurtling all wrongly across the highway to get in my way and crash into me. I didn't know what happened to that car, it disappeared after we collided. I didn't know what happened to the woman in the car behind me, shrieking as she stood beside her wrecked car. I didn't even know where Harborview was, I couldn't remember, there are a bunch of hospitals on First Hill and I couldn't even remember if it were up there or elsewhere in Seattle. I knew I hurt a lot, in my chest and shoulders and knees. I knew I felt awful, vaguely nauseous, car-sick from being moved about on the stretcher and riding in the back of the ambulance flat on my back. I didn't know how badly I was hurt. But I knew people were going to take care of me. I knew I was alive. I knew I was lucky to be alive.


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