Death on the Highway

I thought I'd share a tragic event that happened early in my trucking career that made quite an impression on me.

I believe this happened back in late 1997 or early 1998, certainly in the late 90's. I had picked up a load late in the week in California headed for Texas. Since the customer was not going to be open on the weekend, there was no reason for me to rush with the load. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to take a less traveled, scenic route.

Discussing my planned route with other truckers, I was told is was a nice drive, if you had the time. I was warned that I had better not be in a big hurry if I took it though. When I got to Phoenix, AZ, instead of staying on I-10, I headed east on US-60 until the junction with US-70, with my route then taking US-70 east until it junctioned with I-10 near Lordsburg, NM. This route would take me through a couple of National Forests and through the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. The distance is about the same as staying on the interstate, but certainly it would not be as quick. Not very far out of the Phoenix area, the route became a two lane road and would remain so until I got to Lordsburg.

When I left Phoenix, it was already fairly late in the day. As promised, the going was often slow when I would join up with a string of vehicles following behind a slow going, vacationing RVer traveling through the often hilly and curvy route. Long before I completed the journey, the sun set; so much for the scenic views. As I approached the Arizona-New Mexico state line I learned the Arizona Port of Entry (scale house) was closed. They also told me that the Port of Entry was apt to open back up early the next morning, so if I wanted to get past them while they were closed I needed to keep moving.

I was starting to get a little tired, but figured I could make it to Lordsburg and find a place to park for the night there, but as I crossed the state line I noted a large, wide paved parking area alongside the road with ample room for me to park. I braked and pulled over into the area intending to spend the night there. It would be quiet there and I couldn't be sure that the truck stops down by the interstate would not be filled up by the time I got there.

I noted that only one other truck was in the parking area. It was a tanker. Before I got my CB turned off and headed back into my sleeper, two other tanker trucks came down the highway. The trucker who was parked near me called out to them, started up his truck and fell in behind them. Apparently the three of them all drove for the same company and knew each other. The one who had been stopped stated that he had been getting drowsy so he had stopped to get a nap. But now that he could travel and chat with his friends, he thought he could make it. I later wondered if this same driver was involved in the tragic accident I later was a witness to.

Anyway, I jumped into my sleeper and quickly fell asleep after setting my alarm clock. I set my alarm clock for early in the morning East Coast time, so when it went off, it was extremely early in the morning Mountain Time and dark outside. I was still laying in my bunk trying to gather the motivation to get up and get going when I heard a truck approaching rapidly down the highway. Suddenly there was a rumbling, then an even deeper rumbling followed by what sounded like somebody kicking a trash can down the highway, then silence.

I was startled into action. The first thought that crossed my mind was that a flat bed had lost his load, however I did not hear where the truck had continued on or had braked to a stop. I jumped out of my truck but it was pitch black outside, not even a full moon to see by. I ran out into the highway but could not see much of anything, however I could hear the hissing of air. Oh my God, I thought, there has been an accident.

I ran back to my truck and grabbed my rather powerful flashlight and headed back towards the sound of the hissing. My flashlight quickly illuminated a heap of twisted metal. The truck was almost perpendicular to the highway on its wheels. The roof of the cab of the truck was crushed down about even with the hood of the truck and the driver's side door was ajar. I tried to see if the driver was trapped inside but could not see him. I screamed out "Hello, can you hear me? I'm hear to help. Can you hear me?" But I heard only silence other then the continuing hiss of air leaking from severed air lines on the truck.

I once again ran back to my truck, turned on my CB and screamed into the microphone "Help, this is an emergency, can anyone hear me? There has been a truck accident and I need help." But I was met with silence. After a couple of transmissions on Channel 19 I also attempted Channel 9 (the emergency channel) with similar results.

I remembered that I had satellite communications, and that one of the messages available to me was the emergency message which was supposed to set off alarms when sent back to dispatch. I sent off one emergency message with a brief description of the accident and where I was located and waited for a reply but received no answer. I sent off a second message before I remembered that the system was down. From evening up until morning one day every weekend my company took the system down for routine maintenance, and this just happened to be during that time. My satellite system was not going to do me any good.

I noted off in the distance approaching headlights. I jumped out of my truck and with my flashlight tried to wave the approaching passenger vehicle down. The vehicle slowed down to a crawl as it approached, but just before it got to me the driver punched the accelerator and sped off. Perhaps they feared I was a road bandit or something. The truck wreckage was well off the road and not visible in the inky blackness. Shortly after a second vehicle approached with nearly identical results. Evidently I was not going to be able to get anyone to stop unless I pulled my truck across the road blocking it, and that in itself would be dangerous.

I once again headed back for the wrecked truck trying to locate the driver. Even if I could not get assistance en route, perhaps I could locate the driver and he might need CPR or something. However I could not see any evidence the driver was trapped in the cab and I could not locate him in the area immediately surrounding the truck. I figured that if the driver was trapped in the cab I was not going to be able to help him. I decided I would drop my trailer and bobtail off to the closest place I could get at a phone to summon emergency response.

Before I dropped my trailer I decided to give one last try on the CB, and this time my efforts were successful. The scale master for the Arizona Port of Entry was headed towards work and lucky for me she had her CB on. I told her the accident was right at the state line and she said she'd be there in just a couple minutes.

While I waited for her to arrive I set out looking for the driver in case he had jumped or been thrown from his truck. I followed from where his truck left the highway. It looked like he had probably fallen asleep at the wheel and drifted off the highway and into the brush. Once in the brush he must of woken up, and although disoriented, he tried to get his vehicle back up on the road. He almost made it. The path of the truck led back to the highway, but he still had too much momentum when he turned sharply up the rather steep bank. The tractor was back on the pavement when the truck first rolled which was evident from the gouges in the pavement and the broken glass. After rolling, the trailer separated from the tractor and actually bounced a couple of times before coming to rest well off the road.

Some might state that it is wrong for me to state that the driver probably fell asleep at the wheel, that I can not know and that the driver might have been overcome by a heart attack or something. However from the evidence, I can proffer the opinion that falling asleep at the wheel is probably what happened. If the driver had been overcome by a heart attack, he probably would not have attempted to get his truck back up on the road after he entered the brush.

After the scale master arrived, she at first attempted to help me search for the driver. While we were looking, I spied the Driver's wallet near where the truck first rolled. Inside the wallet was the trucker's Driver's License. The scale master took one look at the license and burst into tears. She knew the driver, he was a local driver that had a route delivering red dye (off road) diesel to the mines that took him regularly across her scale. She was overcome with grief. I briefly wrapped my arms around the young lady to comfort her, but quickly figured out that this was not going to do the driver any good. I held the scale master out at arms length and forcefully told her something like "Look, get it together. He might be trapped in the cab of the truck. The best thing you can do for him is get help on the way. Jump back in your pickup and go call for help. Keep it together until you call for help for his sake." She nodded, choaked back the tears, jumped in her pickup and sped off to call for assistance with her tires spitting gravel as she quickly accelerated.

Shortly after the scale master departed, another big truck came down the highway. It was another tanker truck from the same company as the one involved in the accident. I flagged the driver over, pointed out the wrecked truck while briefly informing him of what I knew, and that the scale master had went to call for help. He too knew the driver.

I set out to search for the driver from the point the truck left to road to where it came to rest. The other truck driver set out to search the area immediately surrounding the truck. It was he who located the driver involved in the accident, shouting out that he had found him when he did. The driver's body had been thrown at least 50 feet beyond the point the tractor had come to rest. I started running towards where the driver was while asking in a shout if he was still alive. The other truck driver was slowly walking towards me and responded with a shake of the head and stating that there was no hope for him. The back of his head was caved in as evidently his head had hit a rock when he was thrown from his cab.

I continued past the other driver to where the victim's body lay. He was stretched out face up with his still open, but lifeless, eyes staring off into space. I felt for a pulse, but could not find one. I briefly considered rolling the victim over to see the caved in head for myself, to be sure that CPR was not warranted, but I will confess that I became squeamish and just decided to take the other driver for his word.

It was not long afterwards that the emergency response started to arrive. Since the accident had happened right at the state line, evidently the scale master had called both New Mexico and Arizona as state police from both states responded. Perhaps lucky for me, a County Deputy Sheriff responded and he was able to confirm that I had spent the night there, he had noted me parked during his rounds, so there no question of my somehow causing the accident or anything.

It did not take too long for the owners of the trucking company to arrive. During the owners discussions with the other tanker driver who had stopped, I learned that the victim of the accident had a wife and young family. Any death would have been tragic enough, but leaving behind a young family only made it worse.

I stayed around long enough to give all the information I had to the officials. I did not think it was right to seek to rush off immediately, but after about an hour I asked for permission to depart. The officials investigating stated it would be OK for me to leave, saying that if they needed any additional information from me they knew how to get ahold of me. I never heard from them.

What I had just experienced made quite an impression on me as a rookie truck driver. I personally witnessed the possible horrific effects of driving while tired. From actual experience, I learned that it is important to always get adequate rest in my occupation. It only takes once to push it too far on too little rest for it to possibly result in tragedy. You might get away with it once, twice, a dozen or even multiple times. But you only have to fail once to never, ever, get another chance at it. Hopefully, if you insist on driving while tired, if you push it too far, the only victim involved will be yourself. That will be tragedy enough by itself, but if you kill innocent victims the horror will only be multiplied. And if you kill innocent victims and survive, there is a good chance you will end up in prison where you will have ample opportunity to reflect on what you should have done different.


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