By Chief Warrant Officer 2 Justin Thompson, C Co., 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, Fort Wainwright, AlaskaFebruary 7, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. - How many times have you approached a traffic light just as it turned yellow and said to yourself, "I can make it"? As you punch the gas and fly through the intersection, you look up and see the light change to red. With a devious grin, you praise your great driving skills. I'll be the first to admit that I've done this countless times with no thought of the danger I might avoid if I would have just slowed down and stopped. However, an accident I wasn't even involved in forever changed my thinking.
It was about 9 p.m. and still sunny due to Alaska's unique solar schedule. My wife, 2-year-old daughter and I were on our way home from the hardware store after purchasing materials for my weekend project - a swing set. We were all a bit tired, and I was looking forward to parking the truck and enjoying the rest of the evening at home.
As we approached a traffic light, it turned from green to yellow. I judged my distance from the light and the speed I was traveling and figured I could safely make it through. For some reason, though, I pressed the brake pedal and came to a stop just as the light turned red. While stopped, I noticed a semi-truck hauling two cargo trailers heading south on the overpass ahead. After the light turned green, I merged onto the highway behind the semi, which was now about a quarter of a mile ahead.
This highway is the main artery in Alaska, running to Anchorage in the south, Fairbanks in the north and the Canadian border to the east. Needless to say, there was usually a lot of large truck traffic on it, especially late in the day. After merging, the road gradually turns to the left and then back to the right, making a lazy "S" shape. Trees line both sides of the road, which makes these turns "blind." Due to that fact, passing is prohibited along this portion of the road.
I lost sight of the semi around the first turn for just a second. When I saw the truck again, it was at a dead stop, with debris and smoke everywhere.
The accident involved only two vehicles - the semi, which was heading south, and a northbound sedan. The driver of the semi was traveling the speed limit and not breaking any other traffic laws. The sedan, however, was attempting to pass another vehicle through a blind turn at more than 80 mph. It collided with the semi with such force that the driver, an 18-year-old girl with only a learner's permit, was liquefied under the dash. Her 21-year-old passenger - who I later learned was a private first class in a ground unit on base - suffered traumatic head injuries and died at the scene. The driver of the semi suffered a broken arm and ribs and was transported to the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries.
The accident scene was horrific. Most of us have seen videos of accidents on safety stand-down days, but this was different. I stopped, got out and ran to the vehicles in an attempt to render any type of aid I could. After checking the status of the occupants, a fire started under the sedan. I put it out with a fire extinguisher I'd grabbed from the semi. After that, there was nothing more I could do except hold the injured sedan passenger so he would know a Soldier was there and would not leave him. He took his last breath three minutes before emergency response personnel arrived on the scene.
After I got home, I had some time to reflect on the accident. I realized that had I not stopped at that yellow light, my truck, with my wife and daughter in it, would have been in front of the semi. When the sedan collided with us, we would have undoubtedly been sandwiched between the two vehicles. I don't see how there would have been any way we could have survived.
This experience left me with some important lessons learned:
•You never know what is coming around the corner. In the scout community, we say, "Never run to the sound of gunfire." Take it slow, gather information, assess the situation and then formulate a course of action.
•Focus on the now and plan for the future. Pay attention to your surroundings, but also think one step ahead. That way, when disaster strikes, you'll have a plan. Even if it isn't a good plan, at least you'll have a place to start.
•A wise man once said, "Go slow to go fast." Had I been in a rush to get home and gone through that light, or had the driver of the sedan not been in a rush to get to her destination, there would have been no story.
•Pick the best person for the job, and never train while under fire. Had the licensed private been driving, not the unlicensed teenager, there may have been another outcome.
•Follow the rules. The rules are there to protect us and others from injury, death and damage to equipment. Never think you are getting one over on "the man" if you break the rules and don't get caught. You are only cheating yourself out of precious time.