A twisted piece of fiberglass stuck in the dirt along the side of the road. A rearview mirror the color of cherry-red lipstick was detached from the wreckage and thrown some fifty feet along the centerline marking the do not pass zone.
Firefighters, EMTs and policemen huddled around the still-turning belly of a cement truck that had mowed over the top of something but was itself undamaged. The realization hit me with horror. The mirror belonged to a car pinned under the orange and white girth. It now looked like an octopus with jagged sheet-metal legs protruding in all directions, rather than a fancy sports car from a showroom.
I moved in the direction of a woman pacing and ringing her hands. I pulled out my ever-present small digital camera and snapped a couple of shots of the wreckage. Then one of the woman who clearly showed the magnitude of the scene without any words needed. I slipped the camera back in my breast pocket.
“I’m Mitch Malone with the Grand River Journal.” I held my hand out to shake hers. With the other hand I pulled my narrow notebook from the back pocket of my jeans and flipped it open. I tugged the pen from the spiral band at the top with my mouth. I grabbed the pen from my lips. The contact of warm flesh made the woman pause. She looked from the wreckage that had mesmerized her. As her eyes focused on me, she settled somewhat.
The woman was short, compact and old, still wearing an apron tied around her ample hips.
"I never heard such a noise as when that there car. . ." the woman paused for a moment trying to come to terms with the twisted metal that had originally been designed for speed. “I was in the house and heard the truck's brakes lock up. I've gotten used to that with all that roadwork going on. I was just turning back to my dishes." A shaky hand rose and smoothed a strand of gray hair ruffled by the slight breeze back into place. Her hand shook and I didn't know if it was from age, illness or the accident.
"The ripping, tearing…it screeched until I wanted to put my hands over my ears. I could feel my home shake, the dishes clinking in my sink." The senior adjusted her shirt and fiddled with the hem that had pulled out from under the apron. "Then it was dead silence, eerie like all the sunshine had been taken from the day. I thought that was bad enough." She lifted the bottom hem of her floral apron and stared at it.
"Then the screams started."
I nodded to the woman, hoping to keep her talking. This was good copy and I'd happened along the catastrophe by chance. I'd been to see a pint-sized friend and was returning home via a more scenic route when I came upon the accident. I'd had a great afternoon tromping through the woods with my former roommate, Joey.
The accident scene crushed my happy memories much like the truck had crushed the car. I went from leisure-time pursuits to award-winning journalist in less than a turn of the cement truck even if it was a Saturday afternoon of my weekend off.
"I looked out, scared to see it and called 9-1-1. I went to help, but couldn't figure out where to go. I followed the screams, but couldn't get under the truck. I don't get around too well any more. I'm eighty-three and have a bum hip."
I nodded again to keep her talking, scribbling in my own form of shorthand.
"I saw a car leave and thought what terrible people they must be to leave an accident and not help, but I looked at the wreckage again and knew there was nothing I could do. I felt so helpless. The screams turned to sobs. I called to her, but she didn’t respond to me. She kept saying, 'Ashley, Ashley, I'm so sorry.’"
The woman stopped abruptly and shook her head. Her next words were a whisper. “Then it was quiet, dead quiet.” She stopped and ran a hand through her graying hair pulling wisps of it from the bun. She took a deep breath before continuing, trying for a normal tone.
"It seemed like the longest time until I heard sirens in the distance and the police finally arrived. I've been standing here since."
"They haven't left with anyone?" I wanted to know if anyone could survive such an accident. I doubted it but wanted to know the number of people in the car.
The roar of the Jaws of Life broke above the cacophony of other noises and stopped our conversation. I looked toward the truck, its orange and white tank still spinning. Its optical illusion added to the flashing lights looking more like a carnival ride than the carnage it was. The firefighters in their heavy coats pushed blankets into small crevices under the giant wheels.
The mechanical whine of the spreader strained as the full weight of the heavy truck was forced up by the miraculously simple Hurst tool. I wondered if it was made to lift the tonnage of a fully-loaded construction vehicle. Scurried movement danced around as supports were inserted to stabilize the vehicle for emergency workers to get to the victims. The pitch increased again but this time a blade-like pincer made contact with metal. It only lasted for a second and the cuts sounded like a bolt cutter snapping a chain.
Shouts and the bustle of movement ensued before the Jaws again revved and pierced the afternoon with its cry.
EMTs stood off to the side, waiting for the tool to allow them to get to the victims. Their faces were pained, tense, doubtful if they would have any work to do but always hoping for a miracle.
I looked back at the older woman. She had tears running down her face.
"Do you think they’re alive?"
I could see that she wanted to believe they would be alright. I didn’t want to tell her I thought the odds were long that anyone could survive a crash like this one.
I patted her shoulder feeling awkward. I rationalized that if I offered slight comfort, I might get better quotes.
The Jaws started again. I let out a breath, relieved I didn’t have to answer. We continued our conversation between the Jaws and the beeping of a second cement truck. It backed up to the first to unload the heavy burden of cement that must be close to its permanent state.
“I was at my kitchen sink. I couldn’t believe it. Another dark car leaving in such a hurry.” Again she stopped, stared at the rush as the EMTs moved in with neck braces and backboards.
I continued to note each of her observations. Some didn’t make sense and her comments were in no particular order--Ramblings of an old lady who should be baking cookies, not watching the mincemeat of a high-end car.
“As I rushed out, a man was just walking away. He just left.” The ambulance backed up close to the wreck blocking our view. “How could this happen?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“I was at the kitchen sink which faces the road. It just shot across into the intersection.” I could see my companion was going into shock, stuck in the repeating horror playing in her mind.
“Why don’t we walk back to your house?” I said. “I could use a glass of water.”
“I’m sorry. Where are my manners?”
I offered her my arm and assisted her back through the door next to the garage. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Reporters weren’t supposed to become immersed in the stories they covered. They were unbiased observers covering the facts. Not helping little old ladies back to their homes before hysteria set in.
I wasn’t thinking about being a Boy Scout earning a merit badge, but I wanted as much info as I could get. I knew she needed to get her mind off the carnage before she couldn’t function at all. I put my notebook in my back pocket.
“I looked when I heard the brakes and saw that car, red like candied apples. You know that color? The car shot across the intersection.”
I opened her screen door. She stopped at the threshold and looked back. Her eyes registered horror and I was willing to bet she was seeing the accident and not the current rescue operation.
"There was somebody standing on the far corner. The accident plum made me forget. That's why I was looking out the window. I was trying to figure out what he was doing. He was walking up to the two girls in a car and they didn’t look happy about it. It seemed odd. I thought maybe he was one of them perverts or something giving those girls a bad time.”
I looked at her wondering if she had lost her mind or was simply confused. Could the occupants of the car been fleeing from someone? We crossed into a small mudroom with hooks on the wall for jackets and then into a cheery yellow kitchen with a green, gingham-checked valance across the window above the sink, matching the fruited wallpaper along one wall. In the homey kitchen it didn’t seem possible that there was an ulterior motive to the crash. I had to stop seeing what wasn’t there. This was an accident, plain and simple, but it would be good copy. I had the quotes to prove it.
I wanted to probe to get more details but knew it would bring nothing now. She was bouncing from subject to subject with no connecting dots. She needed normalcy.
“Is that coffee brewing?”
“Oh, yes. I put it on. . .” she stopped to think a moment. “Would you like a cup?”
“Yes, please.” I moved to the kitchen table and pulled out two seats before I sat, waiting.
She shuffled to the stove and grabbed the pot. It was a silver percolator that must have been a hundred years old. She grabbed two mugs from wire hooks under the upper cabinet and brought all three to the table. She poured each mug to the brim with a dark brew and then replaced the pot on the stove burner before sitting beside me.
I figured this cup would either be delicious or horrible from the age of the pot. I burned my tongue and quickly set the cup down to cool. My hostess wrapped her short, compact fingers around the cup, but I doubted she felt the earthenware’s heat. She again was off into space.
She started as if shocked, jolting the cup and sloshing the coffee onto her fingers. She wiped them on her apron.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know where my manners are. Would you like cream or sugar?”
“Black’s fine. Thank you. It’s delicious.” I hadn’t tasted a drop yet.
“Elmer took his coffee black, too.” She rose and went to the refrigerator and took out a carton of half and half and poured a dollop into her cup. I watched the cream swirl. She returned to the table with a spoon from beside the sink and stirred.
“Elmer was my husband. He passed on five years ago.”
“Elmer was a lucky man to have married a beautiful woman like you.” I watched the color return to her checks. I flirted with her as I took a swig of the coffee. I needed to get back to the accident, but realized I didn’t even know her name to quote.
“Elmer always liked his coffee thick, he called it.”
“Said those newfangled drip coffee pots were a waste of money. A good percolator got better with age.”
“He was a connoisseur of coffee.” I needed to get her off the sainted Elmer. I didn’t need his name, I needed hers.
“I’m sorry but I never got your name.” I was back to business and pulled the notebook back out.
“Goodness gracious. I can’t get over that wreck.” She glanced out the window. The EMTs were now half under the cement truck and the police had begun labeling car parts with numbers for photographing.
“Elmer always said people drive too fast. Wouldn’t drive over forty miles per hour. I miss our long drives to the grocery store.”
I fidgeted. I only needed her name and I could be on my way. “I’m sure you were a handsome couple, Mr. and Mrs.…”
“Dobson. Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Dobson.”
“Right.” I wanted to gnash my teeth. Didn’t this woman have any identity outside her husband? “And you?”
“Elsie. Elsie Dobson.” She thrust her hand out and I took it.
“Nice to meet you Elsie. Is that E-L-S-I-E?” She nodded. “D-O-B-S-O-N?” She again nodded. Great. I could leave now.
I took another mouthful of the coffee and appreciated its heat jolting me into action. Elmer was right. This coffee had character. Someday, I might have to get me an old percolator.
I started to stand, pushing my chair back as a knock sounded at the door.
“Goodness gracious. More guests.” I looked over my shoulder and saw a uniformed police officer standing there. It was Deputy Derrick Smothers.
Now I knew my day was going downhill. I had a great relationship with most officers in the city police and county sheriff’s department. Every department had a few bad apples. The sheriff’s department’s worst in my opinion was on the other side of Elsie’s screen door. My day had just taken a nose dive.