We live this close to death

I was driving to San Diego with my cousin Melanie on Sept.19, 2007(?), when something incredible, terrifying, intense, and amazing happened. Here’s the story:

We were cruising down the 405 South freeway, in the carpool (left) lane, doing about 70 in medium-heavy traffic. All of a sudden, I look ahead and see, about 10 car-lenghs ahead of us, two cars violently crashing into each-other, moving perpendicular to traffic, from right to left, and heading directly into the cement dividing wall. As the distance between them and us closed in from 10 car-lengths to 8, then 5, all cars between us and them scattered, and there they were, the two crumpled cars, crashed into the wall and piled up in the middle of the carpool lane, right in front of us. I slammed on my brakes, and went into a perfectly straight skid, brakes locked, the crumpled cars filling my field of vision closer and closer. I couldn’t stop, the steering wheel did not respond, and the violent ugly sound of my screeching tires filled the air. At this point I realized that there was absolutely no way in the world that we would not violently collide with the cars in front of us within seconds.

Skidding directly towards the cars at about 50 mph, it occurred to me in a split second that I remembered that locked brakes would stay locked unless you let off them. So we were literally about ONE car-length away from the car-pile when my foot jumped off the brake pedal (so close that I could probably have reached my hand out the window and brushed it against the cars), and I swerved blindly to the right, into the next 2 lanes of speeding traffic to the right, without time to even check if it was clear.

We somehow swerved within a foot of the crumpled cars, blasted out into those next two lanes, and went into a huge arching spin, a screeching half-circle through those other lanes, and began curving in a 180-degree spinout, with that awful sound again, and began skidding sideways back towards the cement barrier wall on the left. We spun and screeched for what seemed like an eternity, and then came to a stop, somehow, about 6 feet from the wall, exactly in the center of the carpool lane, only facing BACKWARDS. It was as if I had perfectly parallel parked my car, except it was in the left lane of the busy 405 freeway. In heavy traffic. Facing the wrong way.

We sat stunned for what seemed like minutes. Then I kept repeating, “Are we ok? How many cars did we hit? Are we ok? How many cars did we hit?” It was an absolute certainty that we had hit at least one other car during that spin-out, possibly several. When I could finally make my legs take me out of the car, I went over to the two crashed cars. Both drivers seemed ok. The Toyota had smashed hard into the cement wall, her airbag had deployed, and she was crying. The Mazda Miata was crushed on the driver’s side, and the front wheel hung at an impossibly ugly angle. The smell of smoke and burnt rubber was everywhere. Then I walked back to my own car, my little red Honda, and walked a circle around it, checking how bad the damage was, because there was certainly damage. But my awesome little Honda was perfect, untouched. I couldn’t believe it.

Imagine looking at an overhead view of cars screaming down the 405 freeway. Then draw a line with your finger, in a big arc, from the left lane, across the next two lanes to the right, and back to the left lane. Without touching a single other car. I don’t know how. But it happened.

The mental stages I (and my cousin) went through during those 15 seconds seemed to be broken into consecutive blocks of realization:

First, when the accident was first happening ahead of us, it was “Oh, I hope we can avoid that.”

Then, as the gap closed and we sped nearer, it was “I’m not sure if we can avoid that.”

And when we were practically on top of it, and closing in fast, it was “OK, we’re for sure going to be involved heavily in this. I’m ready.”

Then suddenly, at the last SECOND, it was “Don’t they say that to get out of a brake-lock skid you should take your foot off the brakes? I’ll try it. Gulp.”

Instantly into “Swerve violently, it’s all I can do; maybe I’ll broad-side them but I don’t want to smash into them head-on.”

On to “Yes, we avoided the head-on collision with those cars, now hopefully the other impacts with all these still-moving cars in the other lanes won’t be quite as bad.”

And suddenly “We’re actually spinning out of control. We must be hitting other cars. Is this gonna stop soon?”

Then “Well here comes the cement wall. We’re moving sideways directly towards it. That will stop us. Not too violently, I hope.”

Then we were stopped, and I thought, “Interesting. The wall didn’t stop us, so what did? How did we end up stopping six feet from it, perfectly in the middle of the same lane where this whole thing started? Will my car ever move again? How bad was the damage? Did we crumple the driver’s side, or the passenger’s? Front or back?”

There was no way in the world that we were untouched. But untouched we were. Was there a bubble around us? Guardian angels weaving us in between rushing cars like threading a dozen speeding needles? I guess so.

We stayed at the scene for a few minutes. There were people attending to the two crashed drivers (people who had not been involved, and were therefore in a better state of mind to help). I talked to the driver of the once-cute little yellow Miata, and she was distressed about her crushed little car. I kept reminding her that SHE was OK. She seemed to finally realize that. Strangest thing: I wasn’t even shaking. Usually, I get a little shaky when I have to stop short in a close call traffic thing. And I’ve never even skidded 12 inches in a car. Now I’m spinning donuts on the 405 and my knees are steady. Strange. Adrenalin and the peace of being alive, I guess.

Then eventually we left, after figuring out how to get my car facing the right direction again. A man helped stop the traffic for us and we pulled out, slowly. I don’t think I went over 60 the rest of the way. Melanie & I kept replaying it out loud; what we were thinking, what we saw happening. It all happened so fast that we needed to compare notes to make sure it actually happened. “Did that really happen?” That was the main thing we kept asking each other. We also kept saying, “There is absolutely NO WAY we could have avoided being an intimate part of that horrible accident.” But eventually we realized that what should have been a life-altering experience became merely a very scary and very memorable moment. Melanie kept saying “You did everything PERFECTLY! You were AMAZING!!” And I was proud to agree. We should be injured. My car should be totalled. Her little dog Jane (oh, she had her adorable little dog Jane on her lap during all this) should have been thrown all around the interior of my car, my little red awesome Honda Civic. But none of those things happened. We got to experience the horror of a terrible auto accident, without property damage or physical injury.

I am BATMAN. I am EVEL KNEIVEL. I am a secret Hollywood stunt driver. And when you drive with me, in my little red Honda, you are gonna be ok no matter what.

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