Decisions and their consequences, part 1 -- a nightmare on black ice
Updated: Dec 1, 2021
I first spied the brooding specter within a dark fog shrouding the bridge's crest. As my headlights pierced that reflective mist, I realized that daunting shape was a black Mercury Cougar, one of those oversized seventh-generation models. It lay like a dead bulk less than 100 feet before me, its lights off, its grill kissing the concrete rail.
Where'd that come from? My alarmed mind attacked that question, for I knew that Cougar hadn't been there a moment ago. A blind spot — with the highway's curve and concrete rail, the base of this westbound Interstate 40 bridge could have hidden this night scene when I first studied it — or else the car hadn't even been there. Could an accident happen that quickly? Of course, my conscious snapped… but then, none of that really mattered, did it? The Cougar was there now…blocking my way.
Lord have mercy…
Those of you who follow my blogs know I've devoted several this year to past challenges and crises. I've tried to share how I came to the decisions I made, and what resulted from them. This tale demonstrates how the Holy Spirit moved me to do things I didn't understand at the time… indeed, things I sometimes felt foolish or indulgent. In one instance it spoke to me through my stomach – and this was not the first time. With the 1995 bombing, I listened to a hunger-accented call and escaped a deadly encounter. This time I ignored God's warning and paid the price.
On that dark, misty night, I entered the freeway at downtown Oklahoma City's Robinson Avenue ramp. I was fully aware of the storm and its potential dangers: thick, light-deflecting fog and nearly invisible ice patches on roadways. I had waited half an hour before leaving work, all to lessen these dangers and let rush hour traffic dwindle. I felt urgings to do even more – to enjoy a meatball sub at a nearby sandwich shop before heading out, or to forget going home and spend the night at a downtown hotel. After all, why should I risk an icy drive in my brand new, emerald-green Plymouth Neon – a car I'd owned less than a month.
But that urging conflicted with another side of my bottom-line mindset, for I didn't want to add the cost of a hotel stay to my divorce-strained budget. More important, attending that night's choir practice weighed heavy on me. I wanted to be there, to see my friends and join in the music and worship. I needed that contact, those connections, now more than ever. Due to my delays at work, I had less than 30 minutes to reach my church, but I figured I could make it. I had confidence in my driving skills, with good reason — I had traversed Rocky Mountain blizzards and Great Plains ice storms far worse than this.
And so I headed out that night — Jan. 7, 1999 — practicing safety lessons I'd learned long ago: driving well below the speed limit, keeping my eyes scanning far ahead, staying clear of grouping traffic, slowing early when caution urged.
My first disappointment came as I guided that sparkling Neon onto I-40. I found all types of vehicles on the road, from hard-driving commercial trucks to a Lexus that alternated from crawling to speeding in no discernable pattern. For a moment I pondered getting off the interstate to seek less-traveled paths, but past experiences suggested traction on those city streets could prove even more dangerous. As I neared the Western Avenue overpass, my westbound lanes looked clear. My car felt secure. I approached a curved bridge at about 40 MPH. I slowed as a shadowy car ahead of me switched from my lane, which forced another driver to move still farther right. Then I reached the bridge in its left lane, climbed its summit, and spied the Cougar, its black paint barely distinguishable from the storm or pavement.
I hit my brakes. Hardly anything happened. I pumped them. No change.
Glancing right, I found the next lane now blocked by a dark vehicle pulling up beside me. No escape there.
That Cougar grew increasingly large disturbingly fast.
I recognized the truth. I was going to –
Blackness claimed me, only to fade before gray smoke floating before my eyes. Piercing cold struck my entire body. The thinning fumes revealed a collapsed white balloon hanging limp from my steering wheel… and stark void beyond it.
It took a breath or two for me to realize my eyeglasses had been blown off my face. Coming to grips with that blur, I groped for those frames through the haze. My fingers brushed over endless glass shards. My driver's side window had shattered… as had my windshield.
A voice called from the darkness. I shouted I was alright, knowing in my heart I wouldn't be if I didn't get out of that car. And yet, how safe could a nearsighted man be, stumbling his way across a black, slippery road on such a night?
Praying the smoke came from the exhausted airbag and not a smoldering fire, I unhooked my seatbelt and searched again for my eyewear. No luck.
With those windows gone, I heard shockingly loud vehicles speeding by, their tires crunching on the roadway. I glanced up to find the Cougar now lay in the gap between I-40's east- and westbound lanes. My poor Neon had taken the Mercury's place, halfway blocking that far left lane. With its headlights destroyed, my car lay nearly as invisible to oncoming traffic as the Cougar had been to me.
That realization spurred me to act. Abandoning my glasses, I tried my door. It opened within a narrow gap between my car and the bridge's concrete rail. Looking down that barrier's other side, I spied what appeared to be a ledge plunging to a mysterious hole. I hesitated, not sure how far below me that concrete lay. But considering my options and hearing more grinding tires, that eerie darkness seemed more appealing than fumbling around I-40 and its fog-shrouded traffic. I whispered a prayer and blindly extended my legs over the rail, its rough sides covered with a quarter-inch of ice. Then I let go.
My heart resumed when my feet landed on rough pavement. Collapsing but not sliding, I found myself sitting at the edge of the interstate's dividing shoulder, hardly a foot from where the embankment dropped to the street below.
The icy fog settled about me, penetrating my sport coat as if it didn't exist. Ignoring those shivers, I stumbled for the Cougar. A man and woman emerged from its cabin. They explained how something had hit their vehicle, knocking it into the rail as my Neon came to the bridge. That interloper then sped away.
Glowing headlights swept by us, traveling both east and west. I could see blurry police car warning signals cycling on both horizons. These sights and sounds offered reminders of our peril, but my new friends expressed more interest in my wellbeing. When I explained that I couldn't see clearly, the lady walked with me to a light post in our highway median while her husband braved traffic to circle my car and retrieve my eyewear. I praised God for his efforts and my renewed gift of sight, though seeing brought little comfort. Sitting on K-rails dividing I-40, with no shelter from the icy weather, we watched cars passing as chilling blurs at either side, sometimes less than 10 to 15 feet away. As two vehicles narrowly missed my Neon, we all felt powerless to prevent what we knew soon would happen. Her husband tried to wave drivers off, but none paid attention.
That's when I noticed blood on my frozen hands and pains rising from my left ankle. Even within that cold and the terror of that interstate theater, my mental focus gave way to these unknown injuries. One soon became clear: that exploding airbag had not just knocked off my glasses – it had thrust my left hand through my driver's side window. I could see several cuts but sensed no broken bones. Since I spent the next 90 minutes sitting within that winter blast in nothing but a suit and tie, those frozen temps stopped both my bleeding and swelling. As for my ankle, all I knew was that it hurt quite a bit. My doctor later speculated that I had slammed my left foot on the brake pedal hard enough to crack a metatarsal… I can't remember which one.
Sitting on those K-rails, I remember thinking things could have been far worse. Hitting that Cougar crushed my Neon's engine and pushed it under the passenger cabin – just as its accordion design was supposed to do. My car's crash box worked to perfection, saving my life.
But dangers remained. From our sideline seats, we watched dozens of cars and trucks charge down the highway. Some escaped the spreading carnage. Others didn't, stranding their passengers to join us on our meridian. Over the next hour, our three-car accident evolved into a nine-car pileup that blocked westbound I-40 traffic. My Neon got kicked from one side of the interstate to the other by about five different vehicles. One huge semi literally tore away my car's cute green trunk. I've often wondered where that artifact ended up… my insurance agent never figured it out.
Our biggest scare came when a dual tanker plowed into the scene. I held my breath as that truck drove literally over one of the wrecked vehicles, dragging its gasoline trailers after it. I'm sure we all expected the explosion that would engulf our huddled mass, but those bouncing trailers somehow managed not to topple. That truck just plowed on down the road, fading into the night. Not one crunched vehicle caught fire.
I know of only one serious injury resulting from all this. That came when an off-duty emergency medical technician managed to weave safely through the debris and pull to a stop, offering first-aid assistance. While he checked on two people who chose to stay in their battered car, a new vehicle slammed into the spreading mess. This started another chain reaction of careening hulks. Our good Samaritan saw this and leaped to evade the sliding metal, but he didn't get high enough. Two colliding vehicles caught him at both ankles, snapping them. When these car frames bounced apart, onlookers pulled him free and wrapped him in blankets and coats. He joined our band of stranded riders, all waiting at the foot of that bridge until Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers could halt westbound traffic.
That shutdown opened the door for respite, reflection, and reasoning, all the natural reactions of a longtime newspaper editor. But I was too wrapped up in my agony to do more than sit there in shivering silence, waiting for an investigating patrolman to question me. When I got my chance to explain my side of what happened, the officer stared as if he didn't believe it, even though the Cougar drivers agreed with everything I said. He asked where my car was. I pointed far across the six-lane highway to the pummeled remains of my Neon. Its cabin sat all alone, missing most of its front end, windshield, and trunk.
"Holy cow!" the cop shouted.
Grimacing, he asked me to repeat my story. When others again confirmed it, he shook his head, told me to expect further inquiries, and moved on.
That was the last I heard from the OHP.
The paramedics proved more understanding. Recognizing my broken foot, they urged me to let an ambulance transport me to a hospital. I refused. Having covered my paper's medical beat for a few years, I knew how busy emergency rooms could get on such nights, and I didn't want my minor injuries to further muddle that. I also didn't want any ambulance or hospital bills; this accident promised me more than enough insurance headaches as it was. But I had no idea just how bad it could get. I'll explain all that – and how I got home – in my next blog. See you then, same bat-time, same bat-channel!