Thursday, June 19, 2008

Life and death

On Thursdays I work at home. I usually try to get online early in the morning, as soon as Mr. Fraulein leaves the house to take the Peanut to day care, so I can wrap up early enough to take a walk in the afternoon when the weather is nice, like it was today.

So as I usually do on sunny Thursday late-afternoons, I headed out for a walk through my lovely neighborhood. Rush hour was just starting, and as always, tons of people were milling around my town's little commercial district. I ducked into the Gap store that I drive past on every other day of the week when I'm commuting home from my office, usually with the Peanut in the car. I went to check out the sale items in the back of the store. I was deep into bargain hunting when I heard the crash. I turned around, looked out the front windows of the store, and saw flames shooting 15 feet into the air. A car parked in front of the store, not 30 feet from where I stood, was engulfed in flames. I froze, unable to comprehend what I was seeing. All around me, shoppers and store employees started screaming.

Oh my God, call 911!

Does anyone have a fire extinguisher? Get a fire extinguisher out here NOW!

There's a woman in that car!

I can see her! I can see her face!

A tall man barrelled past, carrying a fire extinguisher he had gotten from the Gap employees. He and another man who had come running into the street from a nearby restaurant, and who also had a fire extinguisher, attempted to put out the fire in the car--risking serious injury to do so. It went out briefly, but then re-ignited.

GET AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS! The fire department says everyone should move back in case another car catches fire!

The people inside the store moved back a few feet. A woman ran past, shouting something about her children, who were apparently inside another parked car that had been involved in the accident. A few minutes later I saw the kids, who looked to be around 8 or 10 years old, taken away on stretchers, but they looked OK. (I later heard on the TV news that the children were not badly hurt.)

Slowly people made their way outside the store, but continued to linger in the street to watch the increasing chaos of ambulances, "jaws of life" equipment and fire trucks. Everyone had been moved back far enough that it wasn't clear what happened to the woman in the car, the one I heard people in the Gap store saying they saw clearly as the flames rose higher and higher. When I heard people exclaiming about this, I deliberately turned away, desperately wanting NOT to see a fellow human being burning to death. (If the story I've linked to here is correct, somehow they managed to get her out of the car, alive.)

Now it is very late and I should go to bed, but I can't get the image of this burning car out of my mind. What kind of shape is this woman in now? And why did the elderly man who died, the driver of the original car, end up speeding so unbelievably fast down a quiet suburban street? Presumably he had a heart attack or something at the wheel, but I wonder if it will ever be known for sure?

And what if I, or someone I love, had been crossing the street at that moment?

When I came back home, I took a quick survey of my condo complex neighbors, many of whom have young children and most of whom walk through this very commercial area all the time. I knew my husband and the Peanut, on the other side of town, coming back from her day care, were safe, but I wondered about those I know to commute through this area. Luckily everyone was accounted for. Later in the evening, over dinner at one such neighbor's house, watching the Peanut giggling with their two daughters, I thanked God that none of us had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But I couldn't help remembering that the families of those killed and injured in this horrible accident can't take comfort in that thought tonight.

UPDATE: More on the accident here.

UPDATE II: The woman in the car has been upgraded to "serious" condition, according to today's news (Saturday). It's clear that the heroic actions of the people I saw with the fire extinguishers probably saved this woman's life.


Misty said...

oh my gosh... I can see how this would just sit with you. you poor thing...

Fraulein said...

Yesterday I kind of felt all panicky for much of the day. Doing better today, thanks. What a nightmare though!

Overmatter said...

Yikes. I'm glad you're OK, but I know it's hard for writers to shake bad images from their spongy heads, so that must be tough. That intersection has always been scary.