We hurtle down the interstate at 70 miles an hour; not the slowest vehicle on the road, but close. It is a magnificent day– feels like early spring. The cerulean sky and warm sun cheer our winter-chilled bones. The time is 1:15 p.m.
The hilly asphalt ribbon seems to jerk us up, or maybe wake us up. Traffic is suddenly bumper to bumper, slowing. And then, just like that, cars and trucks stop, turn off their engines, and stay parked for the next 90 minutes.
Highway Troopers, ambulances, fire trucks, and local police scream from the south down the medians on either side. Within minutes, a medical evacuation helicopter hovers perhaps a half mile north, then disappears as it lands. A fixed wing airplane goes back and forth over the crash scene like a tractor plowing rows in a field. Maybe it is taking pictures.
Traffic won’t be moving for a while, so people begin to get out of their vehicles. Buck steps out of our car, walks a few steps and leans into the median to see if he can see anything up ahead. A nice-looking young man in a baseball cap gets out of his pick-up truck next to us and goes straight to Buck to alert him that another emergency vehicle is speeding toward him along the median. He looks a little like an even younger version of Florida’s newest senator, Marco Rubio. He has smiling eyes and a nice manner. An older, heavy-set man in loose khakis and knit pullover joins them. They look to me like neighbors catching up at the local general store.
I pull up an initial news report on the accident on my laptop and step out of the car to tell Buck and the men that two semis and a small car have crashed. A tall, skinny woman with dirty blond, shoulder-length hair gets to me in a few long strides from the ubiquitous silver-colored compact car where she is a passenger. She is probably in her late twenties, but looks 35. The driver, another woman about the same age, but with curly dark blond hair, stays in the car.
“What does it say?” she asks, moving her gaze from me to the computer as she lights a cigarette. We kibbutz for a few minutes, then she zig-zag walks back to her car, shoulders hunched like some slightly off-kilter blue heron.
I sit the laptop on the hood and take off my 3/4-sleeved cardigan. I lean on the hood for a few minutes in tank top and jeans and enjoy the sun, knowing all the while that an unstoppable tragedy is unfolding just over the next rise.
Folks get out of their cars and walk their dogs. One group of four young people emerges from their van with tennis rackets. The “pock, pock” sounds of their volleys lend a church picnic air to the afternoon.
A few guys walk past, determinedly headed toward the accident scene.
I get back in the car and search for updated news reports. The curly-haired woman pops out of her car, laughing as though we are at tail-gating party, and comes over to my open window. She jerks her head toward the lanky, limp-haired woman in the car. “We just came from a winery. We have champagne in the car. Want some?”
I must be gazing at her like she is a space alien. She continues, “We just thought. . . why not?” She looks down at the pavement and then back up at me as if it has dawned on her that it may be a tad bizarre to be drinking alcohol at the scene of a car crash, but then forges ahead anyway. “Well, if you have a cup,” then flaps her hand at me in a sort of wave, and bops back over to her own car.
I smile. I think I am being friendly. I want to say, “Are you nuts or what?” But I don’t.
Not long after that, I see brake lights begin to appear on the vehicles up ahead. Buck comes back to the car with stories. The older man is from Wisconsin. He and his wife had driven all the way down to Ft. Myers with the idea of spending a week or two in the sunshine. They stayed two days and were headed back to the farm. “Too crowded,” he told Buck.
The young man survived a harrowing trip from Cuba to Miami on a small raft with two friends about ten years ago. He touched ground and is now a naturalized American citizen with a good job, living in rural Alabama.
Traffic begins to move. The ambulances, fire trucks, helicopter and victims are gone. On a flatbed truck, about to be towed, is an object that looks like a modern art sculpture made up of twisted silver. It does not look like it could ever have been a car. I can’t believe what I am seeing.
Traffic moves slowly. For about three minutes. Then it picks up to normal interstate highway speed. I see another small silver car whipping traffic, in and out between the big trucks. I look at Buck. “Didn’t they get the word?”
“They saw it. But they’re young. They don’t think anything like that could ever happen to them.”