You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
It’s a Wednesday afternoon on I 65. My photographer and I are dashing back to the station. We are covering an arson fire where a juvenile has been arrested for torching an industrial complex. Damage is extensive and fire investigators say it’s a wonder that none of the residents or 20 rabbits in a rear apartment complex perish. I am more intrigued by the near calamity of a mass evacuation that might have occurred had the intense flames of the chemical fueled fire jumped to a nearby railroad bridge where a train car carrying toxic materials is parked.
As is always the case with a newsman, I hear the resounding internal tick tock of the news clock banging inside my head. I am thinking about the elements I have for the story that will air in 4 hours. I have 911 calls from citizens. I have video of the flames and the foam being dispersed. I have an interview with the fire chief.
As we cross into Davidson County, I think that highway speeds are once again dangerous. Pre-Covid, the majority of people are home. The highways are clear and accidents a rarity. Now? Now people are driving like they’ve lost time and to make up for a pandemic, they drive fast and dangerous and with a multitude of rude hand gestures.
As we cross Old Hickory Blvd, the dividing line between Williamson and Davidson Counties, everything changes.
SMOKE! BRAKES! EMERGENCY!
White smoke fills our windshield. I sense the pack of cars tightening. Everywhere, there is white smoke, and brake lights illuminating. In that split second, everything slows down, but nothing is really in focus. It’s a blur of slow motion images and an overwhelming feeling that something bad is about to happen.
I brace for impact, not sure what is happening or when it might happen.
My photographer brakes, and pulls to the lane to our right. Thank God it is empty.
I sense cars rapidly decelerating, darting rapidly to the right. I don’t see it yet, but I recognize this traffic pattern as motorists jerking the wheel, hitting the brakes, trying to avoid something that has just taken place in front of them.
In that millisecond of smoke and disorientation, as traffic moves to the right like a motorized tsunami, I see the van.
The gray and silver Econoline is smashed into the concrete dividing wall. The front end is wedged into the heavy TDOT barrier that divides the South and North bound lanes of I-65.
Though the van is stopped, the rear tires are spinning wildly. This is what is now producing a plume of white smoke that is turning grey as the tires melt. Why are the rear tires still spinning at highway speeds, I think to myself.
The thought of a driver unconscious, heavy foot on the accelerator is the light bulb that illuminates my guess.
I lower my window, allowing the high pitched whine of tires coming undone to fill the cockpit of our news car.
As we merge to the right, looking for a place to pull over, I see the remnants of greasy rubber melting onto the hot asphalt. I see the grey smoke turn into black smoke and then orange flame begin to flicker under the van.
We continue to pull to the right. The highway is banked ever so slightly. When you are doing 70 mph, you don’t notice this. But now, at 10 mph, diving toward the break down lane, the pull of gravity feels more pronounced.
Going from 70mph to 10mph and also changing 4 lanes of traffic so abruptly is unnatural. Traffic behind the wreck is slowing radically like an accordion thrown out of a 3 story window.
Because we witness the crash, because we are so close to the epicenter, we have options. As the van hits the wall, cars riding just in front of it, continue on.
After we avoid the initial confusion, the highway opens before our eyes. We are afforded the option of driving on. Before us is the cosmological choice of who cares? After all, wrecks happen every day everywhere.
Tick Tock. The arson fire story is still ringing in my skull.
Many drivers choose this option and drive past the smoke and crumpled metal, content that their good fortune allows them to carry on with their lives.
That is not an option for us. We know we have to stop.
As my photographer works the car toward the gravitational pull of the break down lane, we have to avoid other motorists who are also stopping.
That’s when my photographer says, “Maybe call 911?”
That’s an odd thing for a photographer to say to a reporter. Usually we are the ones obtaining 911 tapes. I play 911 tapes in my stories all the time to bring a sense of immediacy to the viewer. Now I am in the middle of that emergent moment where I am considering dialing those digits.
I look at the smoking van. I see flames. I wonder who is inside. I wonder if anyone has called 911 already. Usually many people do call 911 in moments like this. My initial concern is for the passengers. In that split second of decision I contemplate rushing across 4 lanes of highway traffic and now a highway on ramp to a fiery van. It’s so smoky, and the interstate filled with cars driving like a jig saw puzzle back and forth, it’s still hard to tell exactly what is happening.
I push the buttons. 9 1 1. It feels odd. I am almost afraid. What will I tell them? I’ve done many things in my career. I don’t remember being the one to call for help. 3 buttons. Such an odd feeling.
In the next moment, I recall the events of the last 20 seconds. I have just witnessed a van drive at highway speed into a concrete barrier and now the van is starting to catch fire. My major concern is for the occupants. I’m also concerned for motorists, now becoming pedestrians, attempting to run across four lanes of interstate.
As the phone rings, I ask my photog, “Think we should run over there?”
We open our doors and step onto the interstate. It’s odd. You don’t always stand on an interstate. By this time cars have slowed from 80 mph to 10 mph. It feels more like a giant Target parking lot than a major thoroughfare in Nashville.
As I gaze at the van, I suddenly see half a dozen people running across four lanes of slowed traffic. My heart is happy, that help is arriving.
I hang up.
I watch as some citizens hold up their hands and move traffic away from the van, now burning.
I watch other citizens pulling open the passenger door and talking to the occupants inside.
“Get your gear!,” I yell to my photog.
Being a newsman comes much more naturally to me, than being a hero. I wasn’t even sure how to call 911. But I know how to document a moment where others are risking their own lives and rushing into action.
My cameraman is a salty veteran of News. He has seen everything you can see. He sets up his camera and zooms in to the smoldering van. His shots are amazing, exclusive.
With my naked eye, I watch as 3 men with fire extinguishers blast the rear of the van knocking down the flames. The rear tires are shredded by this time. At the same moment, a group of men standing in the passenger door, has pulled an 80 year old man from the driver’s seat. The senior is unconscious and the men carry the driver across four lanes of stopped traffic.
I will later watch my photographer’s video and marvel at the image. He is zoomed in. The video is intense and poignant. The interstate is filled with a white hazy smoke. In the mid day sun, the images are dark and dramatic, as if scripted by a Hollywood director. The senior citizen is limp, his body being carried by 3 men, then a fourth, and then a 5th. As the unconscious senior is carried to safety, I see a line of cars, all now stopped. The northbound motorists are parked, like a drive through movie, watching this heroic act from their front windshields. I watch the silhouette of heroes awkwardly ambling across the concrete lanes of traffic now free of vehicles. I can tell by the way they move, carrying the man, that these heroes also feel the gravitational pull of the slight incline from the fast lane to the break down lane.
The men gingerly place the senior on the side of the road. Though this section of asphalt is covered with debris and road grime from a million cars gone by, it seems like a soft feather bed compared to the crumpled, smoldering van just a few lanes away.
Just then I hear an ambulance approach. Help has arrived, I think to myself. The ambulance slows, but it soon becomes obvious, it is not here for this emergency. Like us, it is heading somewhere else, presumably with another sick patient bound for one of 5 hospitals in the Metro. The ambulance slows, then passes the smoldering van, and the enigmatic health emergency on the side of the interstate. In a moment, it accelerates, sirens blaring and disappears.
We move to the good Samaritans on the shoulder. By this time, the white haired driver is in a seated position. He is awake, but looks confused. There is an old woman standing beside him. I suspect she is his wife. I will never learn who she is. The van has Ohio plates. The couple is visibly old. This is all I will ever determine.
I will later call Metro Police Public Information and tell them what I did, where I did it, and when it happened. They act like there are a million wrecks just like this one and they need more information to help me.
Forget it. I don’t need your report. I am my own report. I will attribute to myself. I will use myself as a second and third source. It’s not every day that the reporter writing the story is also the eye witness to the story.
Of the 5 people standing around the driver, one man is obviously in charge. He is wearing dark sunglasses, jeans and a blue collared shirt. I will come to learn that he is an E.R. physician. What are the odds? A van can crashes into a median, catches on fire. A group of motorists stop and carry the unconscious victim to a place of safety. And one of those people is a trained doctor.
A man crucial to the rescue, separates from the crowd around the senior, and moves toward us. “What happened?,” I ask.
The man is compassionate and elegant. Like us, he did not see the precise moment of impact, but he saw the smoke and the van igniting. He knew he had to help so he stopped and rushed into the smoke and fire.
“There was so much smoke,” he says. “We got the older woman out. But we knew there was a man unconscious, trapped in the driver’s seat.”
I talk to another man. He is still in the middle of traffic, directing traffic. “He is one of the brave souls who sprints across the interstate when cars are still driving fast. He gets to the van first and sees the tire shredding itself apart and the van catching on fire. He says he reached into the van and turned off the engine.
“I was hoping cars would stop,” he shouts. The southbound lanes of traffic, on the other side of the 5 foot high concrete wall are slowly rolling past. The noise is still considerable.
“I knew we had to get him out. He was unconscious.”
“How’s he doing?,” I yell, holding the microphone an inch from his lips.
“The man in the blue shirt is a doctor” he says.
In that moment, the fortuitous highway Gods of life and death have delivered a trained medical professional to this rapidly changing equation.
We’ve been on scene for only five minutes. But in five minutes, I’ve witnessed a crash, I’ve documented heroism. I have 2 interviews.
Suddenly the sound of fire trucks and ambulances arriving fills the scene. The break down lane, barely wide enough for a single car is now overflowing with SUV’s and pick up trucks and fire engines.
Within moments, trained EMS arrive with back boards and expertise.
The doctor in the blue shirt says something to the lead paramedic, and then in a symbolic passing of the health baton, he steps away.
The heroes breathe a sigh of relief. Five minutes ago, they were strangers compelled to stop, to take action, to help a perfect stranger. The heroes shake hands and exchange satisfied smiles. They have a bond now, forged in the furnace of selflessness and compassion.
If medals could be awarded here, these motorists would be extolled for risking their own lives to save a perfect stranger.
Just as the E.R. doctor is about to pull away, I tap on his window.
I thrust my microphone close to his lips. The sound of highway traffic is still overwhelming.
“You a doctor?,” I ask.
“I am an E.R. physician,” he replies.
“Wow! God was really smiling down upon this man today,” I say. It’s not really a question. I am still filled with the adrenaline of the moment coursing through my veins. I want him to know that we too witnessed this amazing slice of life and stop to preserve it.
“It was providence. Yes, you could definitely say that,” he says with equanimity.
I love words. Using Providence in a sentence intrigues me. Providence!
He smiles. He has the look of a battle tested E.R. doc who eats van collisions and old guy rescues for breakfast.
Providence. Nobody uses that word in a roadside interview. It immediately signals intelligence and knowledge. It makes me believe he is what he says he is.
I will later look up the definition of the word. PROVIDENCE: The protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power.
The doctor will tell me that the man, in his 80’s has a medical episode. “He doesn’t remember anything,” the doctor will say. “Typically single vehicle wrecks are medical in nature,” he adds.
This is also something that a first responder with a medical background would say.
As I am leaving, the old lady passenger, who I assume is the victim’s wife, puts her head in her hands. Her mop of white hair folds across her forehead. I can see her head bobbing ever so slightly as she sobs. Is she sad? Frightened? Relieved? I will never know. Perhaps only now does this life and death moment register.
Her husband unconscious at the wheel. A medical emergency. A high speed collision. A concrete barrier. A fire. A rescue. A trip to the hospital.
Wow. That’s a lot of stimuli for an old lady from Ohio to suddenly encounter.
We get into our news car. The adrenaline still thick in the air.
“They don’t even know that we have this Emmy award winning story,” I say laughing.
I’m referring to the inside people back at the station.
“They will,” my photographer chuckles back.
He’s right. This story will lead the 4pm newscast after I do a little sales song and dance with the assistant News director.
As I walk past the assignment editor, a Jabba the Hut, gelatinous dumpling of a man, I say jokingly that we just saved a man’s life.
“Yeah. I was watching it on the monitor,” he says with no emotion, referencing the large screen hanging behind his desk.
And there in a single moment is the stark difference between inside and outside people.
My photographer and I experienced PROVIDENCE. We witness strangers coming together like a band of motorist marines to risk life and limb and carry an old man to safety.
And this bellicose assignment editor is obdurate to the experience.
We inhale smoke and fumes. He spins around in his chair and yawns.
Just then, my phone rings. It’s a number from Metro government.
I study the digits. I am curious.
“This is the 911 operator, we had a hang up from this number.”
Suddenly, it all comes full circle. What was only 10 minutes ago, now seems like a lifetime ago.
And that is news. Sometimes you cover the news and ask people what happened. Sometimes you know what happened and feel the power of the moment in real time.
“Everything’s good,” I say to the operator. “We just watched a wreck, but he’s ok. People out here heroically pulled him to safety.”
In this case, ordinary citizens, black and white and young and old, all put aside their busy lives to risk their own well being to help a perfect stranger.
Providence is a powerful thing.