Saturday, January 26, 2008

Black Ice

I worked late tonight. Thursday, I left early (3:45) to go to the symphony, so I had planned to stay a little late tonight, but as often happens when everyone has left and I’m there pretty much alone, I ended up working later than I’d intended. It was 9:15 when I finally logged off and made my way to the elevators. As I walked out, I noticed that even the guy a few cubes down, who works the same crazy hours I do, had left, so I was surprised and a little annoyed when the elevator stopped at the second floor (I work on the third floor), delaying me perhaps 10 seconds or so before it moved on to the lobby, where I exited and headed for my car.

In my car, as I drove out to the street, I devoured a handful of cherry tomatoes that I’d brought for a snack and somehow never gotten around to eating today. I was happy to be driving home on a Friday night. I was looking forward to a quiet evening by myself. I noticed that thanks to the late hour, there was no traffic waiting to get onto I-35, backed up by the ubiquitous construction that's been going on for a good 6 months in front of the complex where I work.

In a couple of minutes, I was on the highway. My speedometer, which works only intermittently (ah, the joys of VW ownership!), had worked this morning, which meant it was not working tonight, but I'd guess I was tooling down the road at perhaps 60 mph, driving along at the speed of all the cars around me. Although it had rained this morning and much of today, the roads were mostly dry tonight, but I couldn’t help but notice that the digital traffic warning signs posted at regular intervals along the highway by TDOT all flashed the same message: Warning! Bridges and overpasses may ice!

In 20 minutes, I was on Hwy 121, approximately one-third of the way home. Usually, I listen to the radio as I’m driving, but sometimes I just want quiet, and tonight was one of those nights. I was in the right lane of the three eastbound lanes of a divided highway, and I’d just gone over an overpass when I heard a sound, to my left but slightly behind me, accompanied by a loud, hoarse horn. Before I had time to react, out of the corner of my eye I saw an 18-wheeler in the left-most lane and then, to my horror, I saw a small, black car come tearing out of nowhere (except maybe the left shoulder of the highway?), right in front of the truck. The truck driver must have stood on his breaks, because although the truck kept barreling along, I heard tires squealing and it managed to slow just enough not to hit the car, which flew diagonally across the lane next to me, and then in the blink of an eye it was flying across my lane, directly in front of me, entirely too close to my car for me to do anything but watch dumbly as it flashed before me before crashing loudly into the start of the guardrail at the beginning of yet another overpass. The car hit the guardrail with a tremendous impact that fish-tailed it around, so that it was almost facing oncoming traffic. It all happened so fast; I don’t think I ever hit the breaks on my car, and so I and all the other cars around me were still shooting down the highway at 60 mph. I don’t know about the other drivers, but I was stunned. The engine of the crashed car was still running; as if in a dream, I noticed that it’s wheels were spinning on the gravel of the shoulder, making an audible crunching sound as they tried to gain purchase. For a moment, the car hovered, looking as if it would tear out into oncoming traffic...all I could think, and it seemed to me that I was thinking in slow motion...was no, no, no...what are you doing? And then, to my horror, there was an awful sound of metal on metal as the guard rail began to give way. The car hovered for a final, awful moment before, with nothing to hold it, it careened off the embankment, flipping upside down before dropping out of sight.

We were perhaps 20 feet above the road below, and I felt sick to think what I’d just witnessed. It was all over in the blink of an eye. Miraculously, none of the cars around me had stopped, or crashed into each other...and in a moment, the road behind me was swallowed up into the night, and I was still shooting down the highway, safe and warm in my car, with the taste of cherry tomatoes still sweet on my tongue...


Lisa :-] said...

Sometimes when I'm driving on the freeway I imagine such scenarios, and try to think what I would do if I encountered one. Very very scary.

Did you ever hear what became of the occupants of the car that went over the embankment?

Fran said...

That was so scary. I hope they were okay. It doesn't take but a second for all hell to break loose. I am glad you are alright.


dreaminglily said...

Oh god... That's awful... Did it make it to the news?