Living in one of the more rural hamlets in northeast Illinois is not without certain benefits. We have four acres of open space for the boys to play, property taxes are somewhat low, the neighbors are far enough away to not be noticed, our house is of a substantial size, and the ownership of an antique tractor is justified. We are one hour from Chicago and all it has to offer without all of the less pleasurable factors of living in or close to the city. One more thing, I have had a front row seat to some rather spectacular accidents.
The property we live on now is situated on a state highway, adjacent to an intersection with a smaller road leading north into Wisconsin. The highway configuration was established over one hundred years ago as a surveyor's boundary line. Accordingly, it is arrow straight from Zion at Lake Michigan to Rockford along the Rock River. When I took driver's education, they warned us about such highways and their straight alignments which cause a phenomena known as Highway Hypnosis. Similar to the effect of looking at an oncoming train while standing on the tracks, the object moving very quickly takes on the appearance of almost standing still. This can lead to a number of rear-end accidents as a vehicle fails to react in time to a change in speed of the car in front of them.
And sometimes a drunk pulls out in front of you.On one particular night, just before thanksgiving in 2002, just such a thing happened.
It was a little after midnight when I was jarred awake by the sound of the vehicles impacting outside of my house. I dialed 911 while rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and described what I could see from my bedroom to the sheriff's office dispatcher. I went downstairs to check on my son. At the time I was a divorced single dad and my son, who was four, slept through the incident. Seeing he was asleep, I strained to see what I could from his bedroom. It was a head on collision. By this time another vehicle had stopped. The driver just stood to the side, not making any attempt to assist passengers of the vehicles.
Richmond's Rescue Squad and two County Sheriff's deputies were the first on the scene. The sound of the sirens woke my son. He and I stood in his bedroom which was now alive with the motion of flashing red and green lights as I explained what had occurred to him. We prayed for the victims of the crash who after a half hour were still not being removed from the vehicles. Spring Grove's fire engine arrived and extended a light-boom into the sky. When illuminated it made my yard look like a sports arena.
My son and I moved into the living room and turned on the TV. I thought it best to distract him from the sound of saws and diesel engines in our front yard. As luck would have it, Nickelodeon had a Sponge Bob episode on. While he watched the happenings in Bikini Bottom, I stayed at the window thinking of the predicament of the occupants of the vehicles. A figure walked across my lawn close to the house. It was a man with a camera on his shoulder. I poked my head out and asked who he was. "I'm freelance," was his response. Then he said, "Can I get a comment from you later?" I told him sure and went back inside. Then I heard my son say, "Dad, what's that noise?"
Above our roof came rhythmic thumping. From our sunroom I looked up to the sky and saw the red strobe lights of two helicopters hovering above. My son and I bundled up in our coats and went outside. By now it was one o'clock and we had become used to the bright lights and activity going on around our house. The Spring Grove fire chief walked by and I asked him what was happening. He didn't stop and just asked us to stay out of the way. He walked through my yard and into the alfalfa field next door. I heard an engine rev and looked to see an ambulance pulling up my driveway, then driving across my lawn, following the path of the fire chief.
Once situated, the chief struck a flare and placed it on the ground. One of the helicopters descended and landed in the field twenty or so feet from the brilliant red glow. As its rotors slowed, the helicopter's occupants in blue full body flight suits and white helmets, exited. One walked to the ambulance while the other two opened the rear body of the of the helicopter. Inside it resembled an ambulance. With the help of the rescue squad, a stretcher was carried from the ambulance to the helicopter and slid into the back. I thought about the victim and the dangerous jobs of the helicopter crew as I looked at the tail rotor spinning just behind them.
The helicopter doors closed, the rescue squad stepped back, and the main rotor accelerated. When barely off the ground it made an abrupt turn to the north and flew off toward Milwaukee. This process was repeated three more times with the rest of the helicopters flying southeast toward Chicago. As the last one cleared, I heard the familiar voice of Jay Marshal, a member of Richmond's rescue squad. "How's it going Ed?" he asked. I looked at his face, smiling like always, his cheeks peppered with freckles and replied, "You know, same old, same old."
I asked him what happened. He explained that one of the vehicles, a mini van, had four people in it. One of the victims from the back seat said they were from the Waukegan area and were driving toward Galena for a fishing tournament that was going to start at five in the morning. As they approached the intersection by my house they saw a car turn onto the highway in front of them from the road that led into Wisconsin. The driver of the other vehicle, drunk as Jay described him, completed his turn but kept turning in a circle which placed his vehicle in the path of the van. The last thing the backseat victim remembered the van driver saying was, "He sees us, right?"
Too late to stop in time and likely driving above the posted 55 mile per hour speed limit, the van's driver swerved to the right to try to avoid the collision. The oncoming car and its sole occupant kept turning at low speed, matching the position of the van at the point of impact. Five victims, four helicopters. I looked at the van. I saw hair over the top of the driver's seat headrest. "What about him Jay?" I asked. "Oh," he said calmly, "we had one fatality." A week before thanksgiving, a man died in my front yard.
I got my son back into the house and told him to stay there for a few minutes. I instructed him to watch me from the sunroom and that I would be watching him so he should stay right where I could see him in the window. He agreed and I walked back to the accident site with Jay. In the front seat of the van was the victim. He had a mustache. His lap was covered with the deflated remnants of the airbag which deployed from the steering wheel. He looked to be in the same condition, pale and deflated. I looked at his skin, the wrinkles, the hair, and I guessed his age to be about the same as my father's. "Poor guy," I said to Jay, "he looks to be about my Dad's age. Jay knew my father as well and knew he was in is seventies. "Ed," Jay responded, "This guy is 45."The television camera may add fifteen pounds but death adds thirty years.
I heard doors and compartments on the two fire trucks start to close. It was a sound that indicated the emergency personnel were done trying to save anyone else. They were cleaning up. The body stayed upright in the van. Tow trucks were waiting on the shoulder to remove the vehicles. A sheriff's deputy tapped me on the shoulder. "Sir," he said in an official tone, "is this your residence?" He motioned at my house with a flashlight. I was expecting to have to give a statement of some sort so I answered, "Yes, I live here." The deputy leaned in toward me and said, "May I use the bathroom? I would just go behind a tree but this guy has a camera..." I nodded and said, "No problem. Follow me." My son was very excited to talk to a sheriff's deputy in our living room. Jim and I sat down and watched the end of an episode of Sponge Bob as the deputy finished in the bathroom.
When I walked the deputy to the door, I saw the van was being loaded onto one of the tow trucks. I didn't see the body any more. I presumed he was taken away in one of the ambulances. I was wrong. As the van slid onto the flat bed of the tow truck, it revealed a dark shape on the highway. I think that was what is commonly called a body bag. Tow truck drivers, deputies, and firemen walked by as if there were not a deceased human lying at their feet. The bright overhead light was turned off and the black bag remained. The firetrucks drove off and still the body laid on the cold hard pavement inside of a black vinyl shroud. Two deputies remained on the highway blocking traffic until the coroner's vehicle arrived to finally take away the dead body in front of my house.No warning, no family by his side, thinking about fishing, a nameless man passed from these earthly bounds and I bore witness to it.
A year later his family came by and to place flowers where the accident occurred. I went out to speak to them and using fence posts on my property along the road as a bench mark, showed them exactly where he passed. I wonder now, ten years later, if a thanksgiving goes by where they don't think of the nameless man.
Now that I have turned 45, and I consider my family and the possibility they may one day need to go on without me, the loss of a man I never knew became infinitely real.