I'm not sure how I ended up there, since I don't remember passing anyone, but as we approached the Trout River Bridge (a scarily narrow bridge with no emergency lanes and a very low guardrail), I was in the left lane. In front of me was a red semitrailer carrying three brand-new cars, and in the right lane was a small, old, dingy, black car - I don't know the make; maybe a Honda - with five college-age kids crammed inside it. The shirtless driver had his window rolled down and his arm resting on the ledge. At that late hour, we were the only three cars in our "cluster" of traffic.
Suddenly, without signalling (or, apparently, looking), the semitrailer swung over into the right-hand lane. The driver of the black car had no time to react; the car-carrying trailer slammed into the driver's side of the car, sending the vehicle crashing into the low guardrail on the right side. Had the car been larger, such as an SUV, it probably would have gone over the rail and exploded on the boat ramp below; however, its low profile kept it grounded on the interstate. The force of the blow then sent the disintegrating vehicle ricocheting back off the right-hand guardrail and over into the left lane, immediately in front of my car. It was leaving a trail of bright sparks in its wake.
Despite the long day and late hour, my reflexes kicked in immediately and I braked as hard as I could. Seeing the sparks, my first thought was, It's going to catch fire. The second thought was, And I'm going to crash right into it.
Luckily, I stopped in time. It's a mark of my exhaustion that my first reaction was to glance back over my shoulder into the right-hand lane, looking for a space to simply merge back into traffic and go on. Two or three seconds later, the adrenaline kicked in. What the hell am I thinking? Hands shaking, I fumbled with my car's multiple bells and whistles, momentarily forgetting what I needed to press. Why is that music so infernally loud? Ah, there, it's off. What's next? Flashers, I need my flashers. Wait, why aren't they here on top of the steering wheel? Oh, wait, that's in the Sprinter. So where are they in my car, then? Oh, right, down here. After a certain amount of fumbling, I got out of the car. The teenagers were piling out of their totaled vehicle, looking shell-shocked. The driver of the semi, apparently panicking, had not even bothered to stop.
"Is everybody okay?" I shouted over the noise of traffic, walking towards the car. "Everyone all right?" Vehicles passed us in the right lane, crunching over the scattered scraps of plastic and glass. I winced at the noise.
"Yeah, we're all okay," said the driver, looking pale.
"Do you need a phone?" I asked.
"No, we've got one," he motioned to his passenger, who was already on the line with the police.
"Hey, where are we now?" the passenger asked suddenly, covering the mouthpiece of the phone.
"Uh, 95 north..." I began.
"They want to know what two exits we're between?"
"Uhhh..." I squinted to read a faraway sign. "Heckscher Drive and... Edgewood Avenue, I think." Again, it was a mark of our adrenaline rush that none of us thought to simply say, "On top of the Trout River Bridge."
I turned to the two girls, who were huddled together. "You two okay?"
"Yeah," one of them said shakily. "Right when it hit, he grabbed me" she gestured to the third boy, "and held me down really tight."
"I need a cigarette," said the second girl, with a weak smile.
At this point, I finally got a good look at the car. It was totaled. The front driver's side wheel was completely gone, torn from the car and flung a few feet forward. The sparks I had seen had come from the dragging axle. Much of the metal on the side of the car was twisted and peeled away, exposing the insulation and bracing inside. Both taillights were smashed, which made me realize they were lucky I had been there; if I had not stopped behind them with my flashers, someone would likely have plowed into them. In the early-morning darkness they were all but invisible. The gas tank's stem was also completely exposed, all the paneling torn away, leading me to wonder if our position right next to the car was really such a good one. But before I had a chance to worry much about it, the cops pulled up behind me.
There were two, a man and a woman. The woman was shaking her head. "This is the worst place to have a wreck," she said grimly.
"They were really lucky," I responded. And they had been. They hadn't gone over the guardrail, they hadn't been plowed into from behind (thanks to me), and, most importantly, no one had a single scratch on him. The windows had been open - the driver had even had his arm on the ledge, right where the truck hit - and I seriously doubt that anyone had been wearing a seat belt. Yet, miraculously, they were all okay. I couldn't believe it.
After the police took my plate number and cell phone number, I was free to go. With the exception of a stray mattress lying across the left lane (who knows?), I made it home without incident. But it took a while for my hands to stop shaking. I've been rear-ended twice (once with my dad and once alone), but I've never been in a wreck anything close to that, and never seen one happen. That sort of thing is exactly why I never let anyone borrow my car at camp. "Don't you trust me?" I was often asked. My answer was always the same. "I trust you. It's the other drivers that I don't trust." This sort of thing is exactly the reason why.
Have you ever been in a car accident, or seen one happen in front of you?