I knew traffic was about to get real heavy. The crew had finished sealing paving joints on the outside lane of the interstate, picked up their lane closure and were making the long loop to set up again on the inside lane. I was changing the message board and the advance warning signs to "left" and they would start setting out barrels when I gave them permission to start. Opening the outside lane had allowed the traffic to "dump", so most of the drivers were back up to 70 mph and determined to hurry on to wherever they were going. We were about to break the hearts of those a few miles down the road. The closed lane would bring traffic to a crawl.
It was hot. The temperature in the shade was around 95, but that didn't mean much on the paving. My thermometer read 105, which was probably about right. Close to the paving, it was around 120 degrees and the paving was pushing 140 degrees. It was tough for working, but the best conditions for sealing paving joints. The hot paving didn't have any moisture, so adhesion was the best it could be.
I called the crew and headed over the bridge that was about a half mile before the setup. The signs were clearly visible, the message board a mile behind was warning the traffic and the visibility was to the horizon. Otherwise, the only weak link in the entire process was the human factor. Drivers jockeying for a position ahead of merging traffic could cause a problem and probably would. Even though they had over a mile to move to the other lane, they'd push their luck until they reached the arrow board, which sat on the shoulder at the start of the taper.
I knew something was wrong when I crested the bridge. Traffic wasn't merging ahead. It was stopping in both lanes. I pulled to the shoulder and headed to the problem. I really couldn't see what was wrong, but I did know the crew had only partially set out their barrels. When I reached the "crash truck", I immediately knew what happened.
A crash truck is the slang name for a truck with an attenuator mounted on the rear. You've probably seen one. It's a big cushion mounted on the back of a truck. The cushion, which is designed to absorb the energy of an impact, costs thousands of dollars and is usually ruined when it's struck. The cost to repair is too much compared to the cost of a new one.
A late model Buick was buried into the attenuator. The truck was straddling the left outside stripe and traffic was stopped; mostly due to rubbernecking. I pulled into the grass on the right shoulder. I don't remember if I told the foreman to keep placing the barrels or if he asked. The traffic needed to be moving; emergency vehicles would be arriving. They continued placing the barrels, I motioned traffic into the right lane and headed towards the wreck.
The driver was leaning against the driver side hood of her car. When I was closer, I could see an ugly bruise from her seat belt that went across her neck and disappeared under her blouse. Her legs had "dents" that were seeping blood. The powder from the airbag covered her and the inside of her car. The car was totaled and the attenuator would need replacing.
The woman was in her mid 60's and a little overweight. The intense heat had already turned her face red and she had the confused look of someone that was just in an accident. I thought for a moment on the best thing to do and decided she needed to be out of the heat. I asked if she could walk. She could, but with a pronounced limp. One of the hands stopped traffic and I helped her across the highway to my truck. I helped her into the passenger seat and turned the air conditioning on high. Her face was bright red. I'm sure she wasn't used to much heat and the triple digits on the highway were as dangerous as the traffic.
Emergency vehicles were arriving: Trooper, wreckers, sheriff's deputies and ambulances. I don't remember who called 911 but they must have had given a description of mayhem. I can understand the reaction. When I first came over the bridge, it looked as though there was a twenty car pile-up, instead of a two vehicle wreck. In the orderly flow of the now moving traffic, there was nothing to see but a highway crew, a bunch of emergency vehicles and, if you looked carefully, a really strange "Buick" attenuator truck
A woman EMT walked to the passenger side of my truck and started asking the woman questions. She described how she felt and said she didn't need to go to the hospital. The EMT tried to persuade her, but she was adamant. She would be fine, so I asked if she needed to call anyone. She wanted to call her daughter. I dialed the number she gave, connected the phone and handed it to the woman. She talked for under a minute, reassured her daughter and gave her directions so she could give her a ride home.
As we sat in my truck, I watched the EMT and her partner. They were leaning against the side of their ambulance and appeared to be shooting the breeze. The woman kept glancing our way and it seemed as though they were just killing time. They could have left at any time. I think they knew, more than anyone else, time was on their side. It must have been maddening to wait.
As I chatted with the woman, I could see the pain in her expression. As we talked, it became worse. Eventually, in more of a question, she made the comment: "Maybe I should go to the hospital, just to make sure." I agreed immediately and was out the door before she had time to change her mind. I motioned the EMT's and they were talking to the woman in moments. They knew the adrenaline would wear off and the pain would start. They were waiting for that to happen.
Over the next minute, the ambulance crew made a more thorough examination, she called her daughter to tell her where she was going. and they were gone. I watched them drive away and then went to see what I could do. Troopers had already questioned the driver of the crash truck. He told me what happened. The woman never slowed down. He saw her in the rear view mirror as he was shadowing the crew placing barrels, but there was nothing he could do but watch. She hit the back of the truck at around 55 mph. She had her head turned to see if there was a space in traffic to merge and misjudged the distance to the attenuator.
The wrecker had pulled the Buick from the cushion. The car was totaled and the cushion had performed as designed. The speeding car collapsed the attenuator, which was a controlled collapse. Instead of prying a dead woman from a crumpled car, the woman walked from the accident and would live another day.
Within a few minutes, the emergency crews were gone. The only thing left was the damaged crash truck, which was in perfect condition, except for the attenuator. We decided to get off the highway early. The truck needed a new attenuator and there was time to get another mounted before the evening was over.
The crew removed the barrels, hooked onto the arrow board and was off the highway in a short time. I watched from the shoulder until they had maneuvered through the traffic and reached the right shoulder. I made the long loop to take down the signs and shut down the message board. It was another day on the Interstate. Tomorrow, we'd do it again.
In Case You've Wondered
My blog is where my wandering thoughts are interspersed with stuff I made up. So, if while reading you find yourself confused about the context, don't feel alone. I get confused, too.
If you're here for the stories, I started another blog: scratchingforchange.blogspot.com
One other thing: sometimes I write words you refuse to use in front of children, or polite company, unless you have a flat tire, or hit your thumb with a hammer.
I don't use them to offend; I use them to embellish.