Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Thin Ice of My Life

It was an early weekday morning in Oakland and we had been experiencing some of the most unusual weather patterns on recent record. One moment, the sun would be out without a cloud in the sky. Status Californius. Then without warning, a foreboding silver and black cloud would pull a drive by, dumping buckets of wind-driven rain as the unsuspecting population ducks for cover. As quickly as it came, it was over. The glorious sun returned as the howling wind died down leaving behind a sodden if not bewildered city. The cycle repeated without warning nor prejudice. The commuters were caught up as reluctant pawns in the series of meteorological tempests that had a grip on the East Bay.

The final knot in the knurled up ball of muck that morning commute had become came fast and furiously in the form of hail. Ice fell from the sky in various sizes from those rivaling golf balls down to minute pebbles. The roadway was coated and in California, nobody adjusts driving speed for anything, least of all weather; an accident was imminent.

The call was for a part of the freeway where one freeway splits up into two others. The lanes peel off to the left and right with signage to direct. There are several choices and often times people make either last minute decisions to change lanes, or more likely realize they are on the wrong path and abruptly adjust. The latter was the suspected cause of the call we were going on.

“Five-oh-Six, Five-oh-Six copy code three.” The dispatcher said in a calm voice devoid of emotion.


“Five-oh-Six, I have a code three for you. It’s for the MVA, unknown injuries, bus involved, possible MCI, I’ll start an advisory. Please advise additional units upon arrival.” And we were given the location.

“Five-oh-Six, we copy the call. Ten-Eight.”

We were rolling code three down the shoulder of the freeway. The crunching of the tires against the new-fallen ice cubes made for a unique experience. It was loud enough in the cab that it was difficult to talk over when added to the siren. We were only about a half-mile from the reported location of the call and traffic was already backed up in a disjointed, slow-moving queue. All of the motorists jockeying for position made the lines of traffic bob and weave like rows of snakes in the throws of death. The shoulder was our only refuge, but we had to take it slow given the severity of the ice storm we were in and the suspicion that a driver would get frustrated and pull into our path on the wide-open shoulder. It was a gamble, but our only option.

The hail suddenly stopped as if a water faucet had been turned off and the sun again came out, keeping the daily promise of California sunshine alive. The sun was riding very low on the horizon and was illuminating all of the ice, now covering the freeway, sending blinding glares in all directions.

“Oh man, this is going to cause some serious accidents.” My partner said to me.

“Town biz for sure. Good thing traffic is pretty much stopped. Hard to get into an accident at five miles an hour.”

“Oh, they can figure out a way.” My partner joked.

We got up to the accident at the head of the line of cars and it was a simple fender bender already moving over to the side with CHP on scene. There was no bus in site. I rolled down my window and my partner crept the ambulance up to the officer directing traffic and moving along the rubber-neckers.

“What do you got?” I asked the CHP officer, yelling over the traffic crunching the ice balls on the freeway.

“Non-injury. Should be cleaned up in five.”

“Where’s the bus?”

His eyebrows raised a bit and a smile crept across his face. “Oh, you are on that call.” He said with a knowing nod as he chewed his gum. I remember his teeth looking a brilliant white illuminated by the argent glare of the sun off of the hail. I could see myself squinting in the reflection of his mirrored aviator sunglasses. He pointed down the freeway and against the extreme glare of the sun on all the ice I could see a dark blue bus on the side of the road with a few other cars haphazardly positioned on the freeway. I could hear the fire engine about five hundred yards behind us laying on the horn to get the commuters to just give them an inch so they can get by. There were a couple CHP cruisers on scene and they were running around a bit. This would be some action. “Enjoy!” he said slamming his clipboard shut and turning back to his task.


I was worried. Traffic was picking up from zero to sixty just past the minor accident once everyone got an eyeful of nothing. They were accelerating like horses out of a race gate without knowledge of what they were driving into.

As I got closer I realized that the accident was spread out, maybe even more than one accident. There was a pair of cars against the center K-rail that looked like maybe just a minor fender-bender. The occupants had self-extricated and made their way over to the shoulder on foot and appeared to be exchanging documents. Traffic was zipping by and cars were obviously having trouble navigating the slick road as they fishtailed around. There were two other cars and a dark blue bus on the far right shoulder. Five lanes total so there was plenty of room for cars to zip through and CHP had not been able to control traffic. This would be a confusing call to triage.

It didn’t look like there was anyone in the cars so I went over to the bus. As I approached it, I noted the bars on the windows. This was a prison transport bus! I popped my head in and saw there were several officers inside taking inventory on the prisoners and triaging their complaints. Of course everyone had a complaint but a couple were legitimate. The officer approached me.

“We have two head bleeds, a broken hand, a skinned knee and a broken forearm. Everyone else is neck and back pain.” He said mocking fake neck pain.

I thought this seemed like a lot of injuries for a crash like this with minimum mechanism until I noticed they were all handcuffed. They had no way to break their fall into the seats and railings in front of them. “How horrible would that be?” I thought. It was time to report what we had and call for more resources. I ran back to the ambulance to get my partner.

“Call an MCI and get a sup here. Tell them we need at least three more ambulances and when you are done get in there with some BLS supplies. Mostly minor traumas. They are all prisoners so we’ll need restraints.”

Just as I turned around the fire engine was pulling up. I gave report to the captain and he directed his guys what to do to help out with triage and bandaging everyone up and preparing for transport.

I looked down the freeway to the other smaller accident and noticed it was cleared. The CHP officer had opened the lanes and it looked like the start of a drag race. Everyone was accelerating towards us. The freeway surface was still covered with millions of little ice cubes and the sun was still refracting the light in every which way possible. This was going to be a disaster. The first few cars zipped by hardly even noticing we were there. Then the rubber-necking started. Car after car of drivers craning their necks towards us to see what we were doing on the shoulder only looking forward again at the last second and narrowly avoiding the unsuspected stalled cars in the number one lane.

As luck would have it eventually somebody plowed hard into one of the cars. The sound of the locked up tires grinding the ice on the cement was unnerving. The point of impact was parallel to where the fire captain and I were standing so we had front row seats to a show we did not want to be at. The small, silver sedan hit the stalled cars so hard her rear wheels lifted off the ground. I could feel the vibration through the pavement and the crash itself was deafening. There was an immediate stress reaction that made my heart sink and took my breath away. Very similar to the feeling when you get dumped by a girlfriend or get some equally bad news.

“Holy shit!” said the captain.

I instinctively turned to avoid the debris from the crash. Some did come our way, but nothing that was too threatening and nobody got hurt.

“Call for another unit” I said to the captain and he did immediately. “And more CHP, we need this mess shut down before someone gets killed.”

My partner returned from the bus to give me a count and progress report on what the firefighters were doing. The three of us were staring at the car that had just stacked up behind the already stalled car. We could tell there was a small person in the driver’s seat. Probably a woman judging from the small size. It was very hard to see with all the glare. She was franticly moving around in the front seat. We were pretty sure she was going to get out of the car. The last thing we wanted her to do. We were yelling to her and waving our arms around to get her attention but she seemed very focused and not interested in our input one bit.

Her door opened on the opposite side of us as we were looking at her across five lanes of aggressively moving traffic. We saw her feet below the car silhouetted against the glaring background and her head appear above the car. She was going to make a run for it. This could not end well. Now some of the cops had joined in yelling to her to stay in the car, but she either could not understand us or was not listening. She moved to the back door and opened it up.

“What is she doing?” asked the captain, more to himself than any of us.

“Maybe she needs to get her phone or her briefcase or something” my partner suggested.

“What can be so important?” I asked.

“Maybe she got her bell rung and she is altered?” my partner added. This was certainly possible.

We speculated only for a moment later, for the answer came and it was not the one we were looking for.

Two little toddler feet were added to the adult feet already seen under the car. I felt like someone had just punched me in the gut. “NO!” I said instinctively. I thought I was going to pass out for a second. She was going to put a little kid into this traffic and we were going to witness a horrible, traumatic death of a child just feet in front of us.

The chorus of emergency workers trying to make her reconsider her suicide run was growing louder. She lifted the child up, or at least the feet disappeared and she came around the back of the car. We now had our first look at her. She was a small Asian woman. Perhaps five feet tall, maybe ninety pounds if she was lucky. She was in professional dress and her eyes were ablaze with fear and determination. She was clutching the small child to her chest under some kind of blanket. We could not see the child’s face or head, but the little legs were sticking out below the blanket. Without checking the traffic she just hunkered down and ran full speed across five lanes towards us like a macabre live action version of “Frogger” but without any judgment or timing. I had played that game enough times as a child to know that if you play it like that, the frog always dies.

I couldn’t look, but I had to. Our eyes were riveted to see how this would play out.

The scene was reminiscent of Vietnam era movies when you see the mother tucking and running with a child at her bosom against a backdrop of napalm exploding. She ran into the traffic and somehow managed to thread the deadly needle ending up on the shoulder next to us in fetal position. She would not let go of the child and was sobbing uncontrollably. There was no way to assess her for injuries as she not only did not speak English, but was not allowing us to touch or assess her in any way. We decided to give her a moment to calm down.

I left a firefighter with her and headed back to the bus. The other ambulances and cops were now arriving and we had all the help we needed. The freeway was shut down and tow trucks came to move the wreckage to the shoulder. The rest of the call went like clockwork, but was a challenge because we were spent from adrenalin overload. My EMT and the firefighters were able to quickly triage and bandage up all the prisoners and transport everyone who wanted to be seen. The woman eventually was able to calm down enough to let go of the child and let us assess them both. No injuries, just shaken up. We still transported them to the hospital since the mechanism of the crash was so brutal.

This call took a long time to get out of my head. There were so many things that could have gone wrong and they all ran through my mind and haunted me regardless of the fact that they did not materialize. There were a dozen scenarios, all of them much worse than the actual outcome that could have easily come to pass on that brilliant morning in Oakland. Sometimes, at the psychological level, the suggestion of what could happen is worse than reality.

copywright 2011 Jon Kuppinger