I enjoy the freedom it affords me to have my own time. I mean, who gets to watch Netflix at work, am I right? Some days are busier than others, and it all depends on a ton of factors: the time of day, the time of year, the weather, the zone you're working in, etc. Today, I was working in the eastern region of our county. I like East as a change of pace from my usual pick ups in Central, as there is a lower concentration of senior citizens, a higher concentration of gang-related violence, and a big, beautifully straight highway that people like to pretend is the Talladega Superspeedway. Today, I was on a strike shift, which is the EMS name for the graveyard shift. Basically, any twelve hour shift that starts after 15:00 hours is a strike car. Why call it a “strike car?” I have no idea, that's just what they call 'em. Anyhow, this particular shift was from 19:00 to 07:00 the next day, with a long time medic who we'll call Phil. Phil has been around the block, as they say, working EMS in this county for literally longer than the time I have been on this planet. He has a zillion stories, and swears like a sailor.
The day started out like any other: the rig check-out; making sure we had all our required equipment, logging into the system, being assigned a post and rolling out of the station to find it, and hopefully, grab a bite and get to watch most of an episode of Daredevil, or Sons of Anarchy.
We ran a couple of calls not too deep into the shift; a chest pain call, another patient with an altered level of consciousness, and a third patient who was a Code 3 return for a STEMI (Which is another story for another time... This was an eventful shift). Those calls ate up a good chunk of the night putting us at a post in the center of our zone right around 01:30 hours. Things are quiet at that time. The odd set of headlights intermittently illuminating the highway. The sound of your partner shifting in his seat. And then calm, peaceful silence broken with the static of dispatch assigning post moves on the radio, or the tones of the MDT alerting you that you've been given a call.
“Engine 01, Medic 02, code 3 for possible MVA on Highway 5, at Main Street off-ramp, PD is en route. RP (Reporting Party) says they heard what sounded like a crash behind their house. RP cannot confirm east or west-bound.”
So, someone heard what they thought was a car accident on the highway behind their home, but it's darker than hell outside, so we don't know which side of the highway it's on. We hit the “responding” button on our MDT and rolled out. We were a few exits west of it, so we hopped on 5 west-bound, and started looking.
“You check the center-wall and I'll look at the shoulder,” Phil said, “we should be able to find it.” I nodded, and turned my head to the left ever so slightly to be able to drive, and to scan the center wall for any vehicles that may have wrecked there. For the next three miles I saw nothing but a concrete center-wall with the odd tire mark on it, but no wrecked cars. The Main Street off ramp came and went.
Phil turned to me, “Where the fuck is it?” he asked. “I didn't see shit.”
“Me neither,” I replied, “better touch base with the engine and see what's on east bound.” We cruised past Main, and headed down to the next exit to turn around check the other side of the freeway.
I got off the freeway, went through the underpass, and steered the ambulance up the east-bound ramp. The engine didn't report seeing anything either. “We need to check again, Phil.” I said. Phil looked as though he didn't want to, but begrudgingly nodded, as he knew I was right. We looped back to our original entrance to the freeway and headed back west in a loop of where we had previously searched. About a mile down the road, the radio crackled to life.
“Medic 0-2, Engine 1, we've located the vehicle. Appears to be a solo MVA, off of the Main Street Ramp, west-bound. Possible 10-5-5.” Phil looked out the window and sighed, “Fuck.”
As we approached the off-ramp a second time, I could see the fire engine and three California Highway Patrol cars on the shoulder, lights flashing, the engine with its right-sided floods on, bathing the shoulder in bright white light. We pulled ahead of the engine, in case we needed it to block the ambulance from any on coming vehicles should we be loading a patient. I got out of the drivers side and walked in-between the ambulance and the fire apparatus to see what we were dealing with. There, at the base of the off-ramp sign was a white, four-door sedan, sitting perpendicular to the freeway, the roof caved in to damn near the top of the door sills, with a perfect U-shaped depression in the roof roughly the size and shape of a 55-gallon drum, which was coincidentally the exact size and shape of the steel base-post of the sign. The two most striking things about this vehicle though, were the head and arms protruding from the drivers window and the fact that while the front tires of the vehicle we perfectly on the ground, the back tires were up at my eye level, because the whole car had bent in half like a god-damn boomerang.
I approached the driver's door cautiously, as we were up on the berm of the off ramp, which is basically just a pile of sand. I looked at the head and arms that were pointing out at us, silently and expectantly asking us help me out of here. I could tell by the pallor of the skin on his arms that he was dead, and this was an unworkable traumatic arrest. He had a perfect mid-line skull fracture from the roof of the vehicle collapsing and compressing his head between the roof, b-pillar and the top of the door. I reached out for his wrist. I could feel crepitus as I disturbed his arms to check his pulse, which was undetectable on either side. The three CHP officers on scene tried to figure out how this happened while fire prepped their tools for the extrication of the body.
“Where the hell are the tire tracks in the dirt?” one of the officers asked, noting the absence of any disturbance in the sand after the smashed up guard-railing. “This doesn't make sense,” he said looking around over and over again, trying to get something to click and make this all compute. Seeing as there was no medical emergency anymore, I walked over to take a look. The guard-railing looked like it had taken a pretty vicious hit, and destroyed the 8x8 wooden stake on the front of the railing. There were skid marks from there that went back onto the roadway across all four lanes and into the high-speed lane. By our estimates they were around one-hundred feet long, give or a take a couple of feet. Usually, every 10' of a skid marks on an MVA equals about ten miles per hour, which put this guy somewhere in the ballpark of 120 miles per hour.
I walked back to the vehicle and did an investigatory loop around it. Literally everything on this car was damaged. Every body panel was either bent, broken, or completely obliterated from the impact. There was a large section of the driver's side rear quarter panel that was packed with Bondo or some other sort of body filler, indicating that the vehicle had been in some sort of accident before. As I walked around to the driver's side, I immediately noticed that the rear tire was damn-near totally bald. That observation, plus the fact that this particular model of car had a live rear axle led us to believe that the driver was driving at a very high rate of speed, tried to move over a lane, or possibly wish to exit the freeway, but with the excessive speed, lack of posi-traction, and the lack of grip from the bald tire, the car drifted sideways, hit the railing and flew roughly fifty feet where the roof struck the sign approximately six to seven feet in the air. The car's momentum bent it in half around the sign post, crushing the driver, who was partially ejected from the vehicle. More than likely, he was dead before the car hit the ground.
Fire began the long, complicated extrication, which took over an hour to cut the driver out of the car. When they finally got him out, he was placed onto our backboard. He had multiple long bone fractures and I could see that his entire torso had been deformed from the accident. He didn't have a license, or maybe we just couldn't find it with all the debris on scene, but he looked no older than twenty-four or twenty-five to me. I covered him up with a gray blanket, hoping that the night crawler with the TV camera didn't see his face in hopes that maybe his family wouldn't find out from someone who saw him on the news. There was nothing more for us to do, so we cleared ourselves from the scene and went back into service.
About a week later, I found myself working back in East again. Different partner, different shift. We were out and about running calls, and during one of our transports, we passed the main street off ramp. The railing had been repaired. There was a gray square painted on the sign post about 6 feet up to cover the damage from the car hitting it. At the base of the sign there were pictures, candles, and flowers; a makeshift memorial for the young man that died that night. Every time I drive past that ramp, I see the flowers. Someone keeps putting fresh flowers there. When I look at them, I see the car sitting there, bent in half, with arms and a head coming from the window. Is that PTSD? I don't think so, but I'm pretty damn far from being any kind of shrink. After seeing those flowers each and every time I pass that off-ramp even to this day, it made me start looking at my county differently. I see the places, the parks, the buildings and businesses, the skilled nursing facilities, the roadways where we had terrible accidents, all the places where, on my shift, I saw someone die. It's weird sometimes; feeling like you're driving around a cemetery, and everyone is just going about their business, to work, to school, going home, all of it, in this great big cemetery where we all live, unknowingly.
That gives me chills every time I think about it.