Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The worst thing I've ever seen

Mother's Day began fairly uneventfully.  We had planned to make the drive to the Sam's buffet in Fairfield early, starting around 10:30, in order to beat the lunch rush, but Mom slept in, so the trip was pushed off until early afternoon.

Something odd had happened in the pool overnight.  I'm used to pulling out toads, frogs, mice, shrews and even turtles while doing my skimmer-cleaning chores.  Unless it has been a particularly cold night, most of the ectotherms recover fairly quickly and scamper / hop away, as the case may be.  During cooler weather, however, some are stunned and have to be hand-warmed or otherwise cared for or guarded until they've gained enough warmth to move about and find shelter on their own.  It's a salt water pool, and I suspect that frogs, having somewhat absorbent skin, might be more prone to chemical shock than insects and toads, but so far, almost all of the critters I pull out of the skimmers have survived.

This particular morning, however, I found two stunned leopard frogs, one at each end of the pool, both the same size.  Both had everted stomachs.  (If you're not very familiar with frogs, this is how they regurgitate:  express the stomach through the mouth, then scrape the offending contents out of the inverted surface.)  Neither showed signs of recovering when hand-warmed.  I put them in one of the flower pots and ran to fill a container with pond water, the better to flush off any chlorine or other salt-water components that might be poisoning them.  I left them in the container, figuring that they'd either recover and climb out on their own, or die in place, making disposal easy.

We headed out to Sam's a half-hour later than intended--around 3:00--and had a typically gluttonous lunch.  For once, I didn't save room for dessert, and had to bring a slice of cake home in a to-go box.  We got back just around six.  I quickly changed into some outdoor clothes and went to check on the frogs.  Both were dead, and neither had resorbed its stomach.  This was weird:  two unusual, fatal injuries without any apparent physical cause.  I tentatively concluded that both had suffered some kind of electrostatic shock while in the pool (there has been a great deal of lightning during the recent storms).  Since I'd done my best to nursemaid them in good faith, and they were still relatively intact and fresh, I thought I'd be justified in using them as fishbait.  I gathered up my tackle, camcorder and the frog container and headed to the front stock pond.

The last time I'd done any serious fishing on this pond, a few days prior, I'd caught a 15-inch largemouth bass with a bucket mouth into which I could fit four knuckles.  (When I'm not "seriously fishing," I'm mostly feeding insects to my quasi-pet turtle, Marauder, by placing them on the hook and casting them into the water, where she snipes them.)  Not having a scale at my disposal, I can only estimate the mass of the bass, but I'm guessing it was in the vicinity of 5 pounds.  But I didn't have my camcorder with me at the time, and missed my chance to record it, so henceforth I will be bringing the camcorder any time I'm not just tossing bugs to the turtle.  Such was the case this time.

As it happens, Marauder got to the first frog.  But the second was taken by some rather large fish, unfortunately almost too large for the light combo I was using (the only rod of my three on which I currently have a bare hook rigged, the other two being dedicated to swimbaits and crankbaits).  I never saw the fish, as it yanked the frog off the hook before surfacing again, but not before bending the small rod nearly double and threatening to break it.  I took a moment to narrate a brief note about the event into the camcorder, and just as I was placing it back down on the nearby picnic table, I heard the noise.

It was a sort of rushing, scraping sound, like something being dragged heavily through underbrush.  It was followed by a loud crash.  I hastily leaned the rods against the table, startling the feral cat who'd come out from her hiding place to hang out with me, and began running toward the house to alert my parents.  The sound had come from the east, beyond the fenceline, so its source was obscured by the treeline there.  Dad had evidently heard it as well, or at least heard the dogs reacting to it, and he came out of the house as I was passing by the door.  "I think someone just crashed," I said.  Mom appeared at the door, and being somewhat hard of hearing these days, shouted "What?"  I repeated my statement, louder and with some aggravation in my voice.  By this time the dogs were flipping out.  Someone in the distance was yelling, although I couldn't make out the words.  The horses also began freaking out, and ran as a pack up to the fenceline to see what was going on.

"They're yelling for help," I shouted, and again had to repeat the statement in response to Mom's "What?"  I was annoyed at this, and in a hurry to get to the scene.  The voice seemed to be coming from the pasture to the east of the property line, on Bradley's property, and that meant someone had crashed through his new fence.  Dad told me to hold up while he got the truck so we could drive down there, but by this time I was able to make out the words ("Please help us!"), and began running down the road with an increasing sense of urgency.  "We hear you!" I shouted, already growing hoarse from the shouting I'd just done.  "We're on our way!  We'll be there in a minute!"

I'd been trotting for less than a minute when a small red SUV began approaching behind me, from the west.  I put up my thumb, hoping to catch a ride to the site, but when the truck didn't slow, I switched to frantically trying to flag it down.  "Someone needs help, God damn it!" I yelled as he passed, and when he kept going, I flipped off the driver (he immediately reciprocated).  But a few seconds later I saw him slowing to stop, and I figured he'd reached the accident scene.  I continued trotting, and about a minute later Dad pulled up the road.  I hopped into the passenger seat and we approached the site.

A white SUV had evidently spun, and possibly flipped completely over and back onto its wheels, and was resting nose-down in the ditch.  One of the wheel assemblies had come to a rest about a hundred and fifty feet away, and springs and other small parts were scattered in between, with more parts on the road.  I couldn't tell from which direction the white SUV had initially come, but I hadn't remembered it passing by from the west (where the pond is), so I presumed it had come from the direction of Groesbeck.  When I got out of the truck, I saw a badly injured man in the back of the SUV, whose rear window had completely shattered.  I told Dad to call 9-1-1 and tried to speak to the guy, but he was only semi-conscious.  He was bloodied, but not bleeding profusely at the moment (this was some 4 or 5 minutes after the crash), and I assumed he was in shock.  What blood had dripped from the wounds was already coagulating in rivulets, although there was some spatter on his ventral surface, neck and face.   There was a compound fracture in his left forearm, involving radius and ulna, and bone was protruding from both ends of the open wound, with all of the internal tissues exposed.  The forearm was essentially broken in half, and flopping loosely as he moved it feebly around (presumably trying to grasp something with which to pull himself out).  It was held together by the skin of the dorsal edge of the arm, some remaining intact muscle, and the periosteum of the radius, which flexed like white tape as the arm moved.  He had lost skin from his right foot, and bone and muscle were exposed.  He was crammed in a wad into the corner of the back of the SUV, against the tailgate, resting on his neck, which was bent at an abnormal angle.  He moaned and kept moving his arm around, but did not respond to my questions about his name, nor did he stop moving his arm when asked.
We might have tried to splint the forearm, but it would have required his cooperation, and since we couldn't open the tailgate, nor any of the SUV's doors, there was no real way to work on him.  I tried to hold his arm steady while Dad talked to the dispatcher, then I left Dad to hold the arm while I checked on the other victims (about whom dispatch was asking).  Dad dutifully held his post until the EMTs arrived, holding the guy's arm down against this attempts to flail it for maybe ten minutes.
The guy who'd driven past me apologized profusely when he saw me there, and I briefly berated him ("Dude, when someone flags you down, you stop to help.")  But he evidently had thought I was just trying to hitch hike, and I suppose my yelling at him didn't create a great impression in that context.  But he was contrite and willing to help, and he and one of his passengers (his mother, I presumed) were with the SUV's other two passengers, a teenage boy and his 7- or 8-year-old brother.  I did thank her for stopping when we had a moment to chat, although neither of them wanted to approach the SUV and all our conversation took place at some distance from it, where the other passengers were sitting by the roadside.  At one point I noticed a young girl in the back seat of the other SUV, crying into her cell phone, and I advised the driver to close the window or otherwise attempt to conceal the scene from her.  He asked me where my vehicle was and if I was hurt, and I curtly explained that I hadn't been involved in the accident and had simply heard it taking place.  

The teen was uninjured, but the child was bloody and semiconscious, having evidently been thrown from the vehicle through one of the half-open windows.  He'd landed head first in the ditch, and his head was still caked with mud.  Blood had flown copiously from what appeared to be a broken nose, and he was whimpering steadily.  I asked the teen whether anybody else had been in the vehicle (no).  The kid looked up briefly at me when I asked the question, then turned his head back downward and seemed to begin to lapse into unconsciousness.  His brother kept talking to him, trying to keep him awake.
A minute or so later, Mom arrived in her minivan, and began putting her nursing training to work (asking about medical histories and drug allergies, advising the teen on how to care for the kid until help arrived; she wanted to tell him to lay the kid flat on the road, but didn't have the heart to make him let the kid go).  Dad asked me to move his truck out of the way so the ambulance could pull up.  I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in his passenger door, and I used it to wash blood off my hands (I'd gotten poked by at least one shard of glass while holding the guy's arm, and I figured Dad might have as well, so I advised him to do the same).
About five minutes later, emergency vehicles began showing up.  I went back to the other folks who'd stopped to render aid, and noticed that a little girl was in the back seat crying and talking on her cell phone.  I advised the guy to close the window or otherwise try to block the scene from view.  Mom asked the teen--"Joe"--if she could call anyone for him, since his cell phone was locked up in the SUV.  He remembered his grandmother's phone number, so Mom called her, and after the grandmother began freaking out too badly to continue the call, spoke to someone else there and suggested that the kid might be taken to the trauma center at Hillcrest.
Firemen, a deputy and several EMTs arrived and milled around trying to figure out what to do.  I told the first fireman the tailgate wouldn't open and that all the doors were locked.  Finally someone senior took charge, advising the EMTs to see first to the child.  There was mention of a helicopter being brought in, but there has been severe weather in the vicinity this afternoon, and there was doubt as to its availability.  Eventually they got around to trying to extricate the guy from the SUV.  Around this time, Dad and I figured we were more in the way than helping, and if anyone needed a statement from us, they could find us just up the road at the house.  We drove back, stopping briefly to inform others stopped outside the accident scene as to what was going on.  Mom remained on the scene for another 20 minutes or so.
When the helicopter showed up, I got some videotape of it doing a sweep over the area and then making its descent.  There was no way for it to land by the crash scene, but if they'd been able to move the guy in the SUV, it could have used our front yard.  When Mom drove up a few minutes later, she was on the phone with a deputy, informing him of her conversation with Joe, which was relevant to the cause of the accident.  When she hung up, she said they still hadn't managed to open the SUV, and the guy was still trapped.  She expressed some disdain for the alacrity of Limestone County emergency services, then provided a summary for us of what she'd learned from Joe.
The younger kid was Joe's half-brother.  The fat guy with the broken arm was his stepfather, and the younger kid's biological father.  They'd been visiting a cousin of the stepfather, and he'd gotten drunk.  While driving home, he'd been executing wide swerves on the road to mess with his sons, and had lost control of the SUV.  The front passenger-side wheel had come completely off, the car had lost control, and evidently went ass-end into the ditch.  Joe was the only one wearing a seat belt.  The father had been thrown all the way from the driver's seat to the back of the SUV, snapping his arm in the process, losing flesh from his foot (he'd been driving barefoot) and landing on his neck.  Because the SUV was nose-down in the ditch when we got to it, I assumed that it hadn't stopped moving after that first impact, but I was damned if I could account for its final position.
I hadn't smelled alcohol on him or in the vehicle, but there it is.  The guy severely injured himself, severely injured his son, and traumatized his stepson, and as of the time I initially sat down to write this account, we didn't even know whether he'd been successfully extricated yet.  I still hadn't heard the chopper taking back off, and thunderstorms were moving into the area (there'd been tornado warnings and watches throughout central Texas that afternoon).
I gave myself a brief after-action review to see if I’d handled the situation properly, and aside from splinting the arm—which was a practical impossibility—I think we did everything right.  No spurting blood, so no need for tourniquet.  No way to fully access the victim, so no way to treat for shock (and no reason to move him, given the potential for neck injury).  I couldn't open any of the car doors to get in with him; they were all jammed in place.
I went ahead and got in a few more minutes of fishing, to try to relax.  I was interrupted by the sound of the helicopter coming in, at which point I joined Dad on the road and watched from a distance.  When Mom filled us in later on the proceedings, she mentioned that Joe had told her his stepfather was already on probation for drunk driving.

Mom has since spoken to the kid’s grandmother, and found that the younger boy’s name is Matthew; he’s in the children’s hospital in Temple, and improving.  The father was still in critical condition, last we heard.  He may well lose the left arm below the elbow.  There was some concern on the part of the EMTs that Matthew might lose his right eye, but that possibility wasn't mentioned during any of the subsequent phone calls.

I went jogging Wednesday morning, and passed the site.  There were tire skidmarks leading up to a point some 100-plus feet further up the road, and these, as well as the final location of the vehicle, have been marked with orange spray paint.  I came back later in the day with my camcorder to document the scene.  There is still some debris left in the ditch.  If I am correct in my assessment of the evidence, the SUV left the asphalt and hit some trees embedded in the fenceline while still travelling nearly parallel to the road.  There are broken trees and flattened grass in a swath from that point to where the vehicle came to rest perpendicular to the road, and it seems to me that the only way it could have ended up in that position is to have rolled three or four times after hitting the trees.  (Joe's account doesn't mention having rolled, but Mom chalks that up to his state of shock.)  None of the vehicle's windows were down far enough for Matthew to have flown out, so we now believe he went through the back windshield, shattering it in the process.

Those were most definitely the most grievous injuries I've had to deal with.  But the three of us were well-equipped to deal with the situation calmly and do what we could to help.  Dad and I are former military, and Mom's a former nurse.  The rental property closest to the accident is currently unoccupied and there are no neighbors closer than three miles in either direction.  As horrible as the accident was, it couldn't have happened in a better place, and it's providential that I was outside and able to hear it and the ensuing calls for help.

But it wouldn't have happened in the first place had the guy not been drinking, and it wouldn't have been so bad had he and Matthew been belted in.

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