Sunday, August 16, 2009

Horrifying road images

By Don Klein

The tragic death of eight guiltless people, including four children, on New York’s Taconic Parkway on a recent July Sunday brought back a troubling nightmare which to this day – more than a half century later -- reoccurs in my thoughts.

I am talking about the incident in which a mother of two was driving her offspring plus three young nieces back from an upstate lakefront campsite when for some unknown reason she ended up driving the wrong way on a busy Westchester County road. After a miraculous 1.7 mile flight of accident avoidance as others swerved around her, she plowed her minivan into a SUV occupied by three men.

The driver of the errant vehicle, Diane Schuler, 36, her daughter and nieces, ranging in age from 2 to 8 years, and the three men all perished. Only her five year old son survived and will spend weeks in the hospital recovering. This disaster reminded me of what happened in 1955 when I was a young reporter just out of college at my first newspaper job.

I can remember it as if it happened yesterday and that’s the worst part of it. I was finishing off my morning rewrites at about 11.30 when the editor of the The Journal-News in Nyack, NY, came over. "There’s been a bad accident," he said, "Why don’t you grab one of the cameras, run over and get some pictures for tomorrow’s paper."

My boss, Norman Baker, was an experienced and easy going leader who helped shape the early years of my career. As a 9,000 circulation community paper in the shadow of the giant New York city dailies, he had to focus on local news to hold readers. Norm, an instinctive newsman, was always thinking of tomorrow’s front page.

I was eager to cover a breaking story. After all wasn’t that the reason I wanted to be a journalist and weren’t those the skills they tried to instill in us at NYU’s journalism school? The breaking news I had envisioned were major stories in New York, or big time politics in Washington or crucial stories of conflict and wars around the world, not a traffic accident. But you had to start somewhere.

I grabbed one of the paper’s two archaic Speed Graflex cameras and headed for the scene. When I arrived it was clear there was a calamity unfolding. Emergency vehicles with flashing lights were all over the place and as I approached the crash site with camera in hand I could see what happened.

A giant tanker-trailer had crossed over the center line and crushed a private sedan against the opposite side railing. The crash had occurred on an elevated portion of the road where it passed over a small hamlet in the valley several hundred feet below. The cab of the tanker had been propelled over the edge and crashed in a field many feet below. The tanker itself was crunched against the squashed car on the road.

The auto looked as if a King Kong-like creature had stepped on it and as the volunteer firemen were working feverishly to free its inhabitants I couldn’t understand why they were still at it some 20 minutes after we had learned of the accident by police radio.

Later I learned that the rescuers feared using acetylene torches to cut away the roof of the car to get to the trapped souls because they did not know the contents of the tanker and feared a spark could cause an explosion. Instead they used giant hand-powered saws to cut off the roof.

When they were close to hacking through the roof I positioned myself a few feet up a lamppost for a better view, focused my camera on the car and watched as the rescuers bent back the shattered remains of the car. I then saw a vision which has haunted me ever since.

There were six people inside, all members of one family. There was a father and mother, two children and two grandparents. They were jumbled up and entangled like the sorriest collection of discarded dolls in a child’s closet. The difference was that these were human beings. The first one out was the young mother. You could see she had a terrible head wound and was dead. Her eyes stared sightlessly at the sky as they carried her body passed where I was standing.

The elderly couple also were crushed beyond life as was the little girl. Their bodies were horribly contorted by the crash. Blood was everywhere. The father and son recovered, and were hospitalized for many months. The truck driver died inside his fallen cab many feet below. I took many pictures which appeared in the next edition and wrote the story. Made sick by the experience, I couldn’t eat dinner that night.

The investigation found no obvious cause for the accident and in the end police concluded that the truck driver, who had been on the road for a long stint, apparently fell asleep as his rig entered the bridge, crossing into oncoming traffic and caromed into the car crushing the family coming in the opposite direction.

The final toll: Five people died, two were seriously injured. Two families – those in the sedan and the truck driver’s wife and children – were decimated.

The conclusion: It didn’t have to happen if only the truck driver had rested.

The Taconic accident also didn’t have to happen. A toxicology report revealed that Ms. Schuler’s blood-alcohol level was twice that for determining drunken driving and there was a high level of marijuana in her system.

Less than 30 minutes before the fatal crash she had spoken to her brother by cell phone and complained of having trouble focusing. He told her to pull off the road and he would come get her. She didn’t.

If only she had heeded his advice.

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