Last week I had a flashback. I was maybe 13, and my mom, my sister, and I were on the freeway headed somewhere I don’t recall, and we found ourselves in a ginormous traffic jam. I don’t know how long we were in it; I just remember it felt like days. I was dying to get where we were going. But as the endless minutes wore on, I grew just as impatient to learn what had caused such a delay.

When I saw it, I was dumbstruck, horrified at the sight: Two smoldering carcasses of what had been someone’s cars. And the broken, anguished people who had been inside them.

But what shocked me in a way I’ll never forget was the man directing traffic around them. It was my dad.

As accidents go, this one was ghastly, with at least one vehicle exploding into fire and a young man enveloped in flames. My dad had been driving to pick up my brother when he came upon that scene, well before any emergency vehicles had arrived. What he witnessed was a nightmare, terrifying and repulsive. But his response was to enter that horror, before the injured could even think of needing rescue.

Silent angel

It was a few hours before Daddy came home. All he said was that he was deeply saddened for the people in those cars, and then he was silent the rest of the night. He never spoke of that incident ever again. For him it was less a story than a closed book you don’t open, too painful to feel proud about. I know him: if anything, he grieved that he hadn’t done more.

Family at graduation
Mama, me, my sister, and Daddy, who art in Heaven

It never occurred to Daddy that he had done something heroic or brave. But it sure occurred to me. I knew while it happened that my dad was doing the work of angels–not for glory or credit or for anything other than to do good. I always wondered, if it had been me, would I be an angel too?
Mama, me, my sister, and Daddy, who art in Heaven

Fishtail…and fire?

Fast-forward many years to last week. I was on the freeway, approaching my off-ramp. Suddenly an SUV traveling in the fast lane fishtailed and skidded into the center lane. It spun almost 180 degrees, burning rubber, cartwheeling side over side, before landing on its roof.

I stopped my car. Before me the road was littered with so much shattered glass, car parts, and every other kind of debris. I couldn’t drive forward if I’d wanted to–which I didn’t–and neither could the drivers along side me. Scared we would be rear-ended, I switched on my hazard lights, and our vehicles formed the buffer between the accident and the traffic coming from behind us.

Then I froze, fearing the overturned SUV might explode any second. Instinct told me to run. But something deeper said I was compelled to remain. I dreaded seeing children inside, or someone trapped, grievously injured, or worse. But could I live with myself if I just left them there?

No, I couldn’t. I decided, “If that car blows up, I guess I blow up too.” Hands shaking, I grabbed my phone, got out of my car, and approached the SUV.

Courage, grace, tears

Several people from other cars, braver souls than me, had already beaten me there. By inexplicable grace, one of them was a nurse. I heard them talking to people in the upturned vehicle, helping them climb out.

It took several minutes but finally all the SUV passengers emerged–three women in their 20s. Two were bleeding, one from a cut on the head, one from the arm. But they all could walk and speak. Thank goodness they had worn seat belts.

In her anguish the driver cried out, to no one in particular, that a car had cut her off, causing her to swerve and clip another car. That’s what sent hers spinning. Helpless, overwhelmed, she sobbed at the sight of her belongings scattered everywhere.

Car accident SUV
This is not the same SUV–I took no photos–but it looked an awful lot like this.

The very least

At that moment someone asked if anyone had called 911. “I’ll do it,” I said. It was the least I could do, especially since I had done nothing so far.

The incident had already been reported, the 911 operator told me, and the police were on their way. But, she said, because I was with the victims, I could help by relaying questions and answers between “medical emergency” and the women.

Meanwhile, the nurse had put gloves on and was tending to their bleeding, guiding them to a place to sit, and reassuring them.

A handful of us began clearing debris from the road, mostly personal effects: jackets, purses, coins, toys, a boot, a book, and lots of someone’s mail. Soon the nurse joined in. From somewhere, plastic garbage bags appeared and we started stuffing the belongings inside to hand over to the women. I was sorry for all the chaos the women would have to spend weeks, months, maybe longer putting back in order. But something about their intimate possessions forcibly laid bare then handled by strangers moved me most of all.

The prize

At last the police arrived and the paramedics, who treated the injured and stabilized the one with the head cut then strapped her onto a stretcher. As they loaded her into the ambulance, I caught sight of something metal a few feet in front of my car–a cellphone. I hurried to scoop it up and asked if it was hers. “My phone!” she all but cried, clutching it like a precious stone. Its screen was cracked, but it worked. As unfortunate as all three women were, I thought they were incredibly lucky too.

The police used their car to push the SUV out of the road, so now the ambulance could depart, followed by the traffic bottled up behind us. An officer said I was free to go also.

As I started my car, someone came to my window, motioning for me to open it. It was the nurse. “Thanks for helping,” she said, reaching in, placing something in my hand. It was a few coins, 65 cents, remains from the accident’s wreckage.

“That belongs to them,” I protested. “Let’s give it to the police for those women…. Or you! You should have it.”

“Take it,” she smiled. “You deserve it.”

Me? I certainly did not expect that, or agree with it. She was the one–the one who had done everything. As I dropped my little prize in a cup holder, I turned to tell her I had seen her heroics, and all the good she had done. But she was gone, and I didn’t see her again.

I don’t know who deserves what or even who decides. But I know there were miracles for everyone on the freeway that day:

A car tumbled like a weed and landed upside-down in the middle of a freeway, and everyone walked away. Nothing exploded or caught fire, no other vehicles were damaged, and, thank goodness, no children were involved. Just like my dad at that accident years ago, a brave unsung angel was first on the scene, running toward danger, to help strangers through it.

And, lucky me, I was there to bear witness once again.

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