But that was before the afternoon of Feb. 2, when we encountered an upside-down minivan in a ditch that held a family of five: a mother at the wheel, a teenage boy in the front passenger seat and and three children; two of them in car seats.
We hadn’t witnessed the crash. But we were just seconds behind it, with Shelly driving north on Interstate 5 just outside Red Bluff, between the Freeway Holiday Tree and the CHP weigh station. I’d noticed a sudden flurry of dirt and dust that stretched from the freeway’s left shoulder, then across the lanes to the right shoulder. It reminded me of a horrific car crash I’d witnessed some years back. I told Shelly there was serious trouble, that we should pull over.
Shelly pulled her car over to the right to the freeway’s shoulder, behind a car with Washington plates that had also stopped. That’s when we saw the upside-down minivan about 20 feet or so off the freeway down a weedy embankment. As Shelly ran to join others heading toward the van to help, I called 911. It was not a calm call. I – self-described cool under pressure – was shrieking information to the dispatcher.
By the time I’d finished my call and scrambled down toward the van, a small crowd – less than a dozen – had formed.
“There are kids inside!” someone yelled.
Those words, combined with the sounds of children crying inside the smashed-up van, coincided with the start of my tunnel vision. I saw nothing but the van. I felt an intense purpose to do something to help. But what!? In my mind’s eye I pictured all of us effortlessly picking up the van and carefully setting it right-side-up. It was as if the freeway wasn’t there, nor the traffic zooming by, nor even some of the people who stood nearby, who I suddenly noticed only in terms of what they were doing, not what they looked like.
And I call myself a reporter.
Those of us who’d gathered to help were strangers to one another. It wasn’t as if anyone took charge, or as if there was any discussion of the best way to proceed, though, in retrospect, that may have been a good idea.
A slim young man with tattoos sprang into action and pried open a side door. He climbed inside the crunched van while someone else opened the van’s back hatch. Within a few minutes the young man inside the van handed out a baby girl – between 6 and 10 months old – to Shelly, who held the baby. The baby was moving, and looked good – no blood, no obvious injuries, wide-eyed – with her head pressed against Shelly’s chest. Shelly then passed the baby to another woman so Shelly could be handed a little boy of about 3 or 4 years old, who also appeared unhurt, though he was crying and said his head hurt. I was in the dirt behind the van helping guide out a girl of about 10 years old, who was sobbing as she crawled slowly along the van’s interior roof to reach us – unknown travelers who waited in the weeds for her with outstretched hands to ease her to the ground.
The girl’s arm was scraped, and she was cradling it. I held her as she cried and tried to comfort her. She said her mother was still inside, that the whole family had been in the crash, except the dad. I wondered if the mother was dead, because the open van was now silent.
A pair of men who reminded me of characters from “Oh Brother Where Are Thou” seemed as much in shock as the van’s passengers, and one of the men kept repeating how awful it was that innocent little children should suffer.
“Don’t cry,” the man kept repeating to the wailing little girl. “You’re gonna be OK.”
A few minutes later a woman who identified herself as a pediatric nurse showed up and started instructing people to gently place the little girl and little boy on the ground so she could check them for injuries. By now the children’s mother had been helped out of the van, alive, shaking, dazed and bleeding, but walking, until she was stretched out on the ground, too.
In short order a collection of emergency vehicles arrived: California Highway Patrol, and a St. Elizabeth Community Hospital ambulance, a Tehama County fire truck, and maybe others. They took over. Thank God.
When a CHP officer asked if anyone had seen what happened, the teen boy raised his hand, said he was a passenger, and that a white SUV had cut off the family’s van, forcing the van off the road.
“I hope the doctors arrest those people in the white car,” cried the little girl, who said her name was Cassandra, and that the baby’s name was Rose, and the preschooler’s name was Ben. She said they lived in Red Bluff.
As a woman with dark hair and God’s-eye earrings held baby Rose, the pediatric nurse examined the other two children, and without looking up said something that still haunts me.
“For future reference, we prefer children are kept in their car seats in situations like this,” she said.
Obviously, the professionals had everything under control. In matter-of-fact voices they discussed whether the girl had a possible broken arm and maybe internal injuries and whether a helicopter was or was not necessary.
Shelly and I and the other strangers all found our way back to our respective cars – after telling each other to drive safely. Back in Shelly’s car she and I wept; a release of fear and relief and disbelief. We sat there stunned for a few minutes before we extra-carefully resumed our journey north.
All the way home we talked about what had happened. We kept returning to what the nurse had said, and wondered what we could have done – should have done – differently. We talked about how, at the time, we were worried the van would catch fire – images no doubt fueled by too many movies where vehicles almost always burst into flames following a crash. Fact or Hollywood?
We talked about how things could have been so much worse in so many ways, and all the fortunate things that happened in those unfortunate moments. Everyone lived. The van didn’t land upside down in the middle of the freeway. It was daylight. It could have been a far steeper embankment drop-off, as some places are along that stretch of freeway.
We chastised ourselves for not having emergency blankets on hand, and vowed to stock emergency supplies, like flashlights and bottled water and bandages, in our cars. We extrapolated about how reckless it is for anyone to drive around with potential deadly projectiles like canned foods or glass bottles or even an untethered dog ( if we had a dog), all of which would be possible lethal flying objects in a car crash.
Finally, we talked about the issue of the upside-down van, and how difficult it would have been to safely unbuckle and remove a whole car seat with a child still in it … upside down. I had visions of the seat belt latch releasing and the car seat falling and the child landing on his or her head.
Really, what should a lay person do if we are among the first at the scene of a crash?
I consulted a firefighter/paramedic I know for some guidance. He started by saying that there’s no more a dangerous a place for firefighters or EMS personnel than the freeways, but it’s even more dangerous for civilians, who lack training and protective equipment.
“I personally would never get out of my car on the freeway,” he said. “Stop, call 911, block the scene as best you can with your car, but don’t get out.”
He said that as far as rushing in to pull people out of a crash, that’s not the best idea, either.
“An overturned vehicle is terribly unstable,” he said. “That ‘layperson rescuer’ could have caused that car to roll further, crushing himself and the occupants. We have special equipment to stabilize the vehicle and remove the car from the victims. It is always better to wait so that extrication can be done right.”
He said that certainly, if the car was smoking or on fire, or if there was fire nearby, and 5 minutes would make a difference between life and death, then lay people should do what they can and not worry as much about special precautions at that point.
But he said the scenario Shelly and I encountered sounded relatively stable – other than the car being upside down – so he would have recommended that everyone wait until the professionals arrived. He agreed with the pediatric nurse’s suggestion about keeping the children in the car seats.
“I have transported lots of kids, and I just leave them in their seats and tape their heads down,” he said. “But those seats are so amazing. It is highly unlikely that a kid will break their backs if they are restrained properly, in any crash. But yes, if the fire department had extricated the victims, they would have probably kept them in their car seats.”
As a final statement, he said that in his line of work, when he’s responding to a pediatric call, there’s no better sound to his ears than that of a crying child. He said that on those pediatric calls, the worst sound is no sound at all.
Today I feel so extremely grateful for professional life-savers like my fire fighter/paramedic friend, and all emergency responders who rush into the most terrifying of situations.
But most of all, today, I feel such gratitude that a Red Bluff family of five survived a crash that could have had such a sadder ending.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.