Fate’s spindly fingers

Tuesday morning, a new project and an amazing poker run kept me awake much past when I should go to bed. Mrs. Otis, as she is wont to do, offered a half-hearted lecture. “Your day job is more important than your ‘night job’. You shouldn’t come to bed this late.”

I knew she was right, but felt somewhat vindicated when I finally hit the sheets. I couldn’t sleep anyway and stared at the clock. The LED numbers ticked past 4am to 4:30am. I finally drifted off, not knowing what was happening 55 miles south.

“I’m going to smoke.”

She was 27 years old and carried IDs and mail that showed addresses in three different states. She’d been riding with the Gold Trucker for the past two days. He and his son were from Wisconsin, on a southbound run that would’ve likely took them to the Port of Charleston. Though his arms were covered in tattoos and he wore the face of a retired biker, the Gold Trucker didn’t like smoke. He didn’t mind picking up hitchhikers, even if they professed to be Wiccan and wore goth clothing. He just didn’t like smoke.

“Don’t go far,” he said as she climbed out of the rig and onto the cooling asphalt of the interstate rest stop.

“I’m just going to that pavillion.”

The Gold Trucker fell back to sleep, preparing for the next day’s ride.

No one is sure exactly how much time passed before the trucker’s cb radio crackled to life. His road brothers were looking out for their own.

“I-26 is shut down, boys. They’re landing a helicopter there.”

The Gold Trucker shook himself awake and noticed his Wiccan road partner hadn’t returned from her smoke. He climbed out of the rig and looked out to the interstate. It was awash in emergency lights and law enforcement officers.

My phone rang before it should. When that happens, somebody is usually dead, either one of my friends or relatives or somebody else’s. Nobody calls before 8am unless something bad has happened.

I rubbed my eyes and checked the caller ID. Like I do every time since my dad fell ill, I let out a little relief sigh when I saw the call was coming from work. Sometimes I think I should feel guilty when I’m releieved that somebody else’s family member is dead and not my own. But, like a lot of things in life, I’ve conditioned myself to work on a jaded and often sick sense of “better you than me, bud.”

A friend (with whom I also work) was on the other end of the line. He relayed the story like any newsman would. Point by point, with a little suspense, and a none-too-happy ending.

My immediate presence wasn’t required, but another phone call an hour later told me what I already knew.

I needed to get on the road.

The initial call into 911 offices was that a woman had been hit by a car. Her breathing body lay in the interstate’s median.

But Assistant Fire Chief Tom Workman knew from experience, “that woman wasn’t hit by any car.”

But the processes were already in motion. The E-911 center was already calling medical rescue helicopters from four different hospitals. Three of the helicopter crews refused to make the flight. Dense fog had socked in most of the region. Most of the crews just couldn’t fly.

But one of the four said they would come. They had a clear path. The pilot, flight nurse, and paramedic were on their way.

The woman, her dark clothing likely still stinking of smoke a little bit, was moved into an ambulance. The EMTs on the scene made a quick diagnosis. The woman’s greateast injury was a broken leg. The tibia. Maybe the fibula, too. Life-threatening, her injuries were not.

But there in the sky was the helicopter. It landed safely. Since it was there, since it had made the trip, the crews moved the mumbling woman into the chopper. Workman moved his firetruck out of the traffic. It was building up on I-26 already.

He watched the chopper rise slowly off the ground and climb toward a line of tall pine trees in the Sumter National Forest.

“Everything looked normal,” he said.

But seconds later, the EMTs who were still cleaning up their mess at the roadside heard a thud. They thought there had been an accident on the interstate, but saw nothing.

By 8am, the rest stop parking lot was full of media trucks and emergency vehicles. By noon, both camps had grown larger and agreed to work together.

The county Sheriff had a list in his hand and read as the reporters jotted chickenscratch in their notebooks.

The Sheriff read off the names. The pilot was dead. The flight nurse and paramedic were dead. The hitchhiker, two-day-friend of the Gold Trucker, was dead. The chopper, only 15 months into its tenure at a major Upstate South Carolina hopsital, was barely recognizable.

The federal investigators were on the ground within an hour or two. It took eight hours to get the bodies out of the wreckage. No investigator would say the obvious out loud. They would often begin with, “One of the bodies was so badly entangled that…”

We all finished the sentence in our heads.

The view from the air was sub-par at best. The Sheriff agreed to take the reporters for the 20-minute ride into the forest. He believed, once the bodies were out, that everyone had a right to see what he’d been looking at all morning.

The collection of media loaded itself into a convoy of ATVs, talking some, but more holding on and doing its best not to sink into a familiar pattern of gallows humor that often accompanies such scenes.

Most of the reporters who had seen one sort of crash or another expected to see large pieces of chopper spread out along a long path. I’ve ridden in a helicopter more times than I can count. I suspected I’d be able to inventory the damage with some amount of accuracy.

I only recognized the rotor blade. The rest was a mass of charred wire and metal. I was glad the recovery crew had already moved the bodies.

Fate and how it toys with things has always fascinated me. Life and death are made up of a collection of if/then variables that no one can easily determine until it’s too late.

If only the Gold Trucker didn’t mind the smell of cigarettes. If only the EMTs had recognized earlier that the woman’s injuries weren’t life-threatening and didn’t require a chopper ride to a hospital.

No one knows for sure whether the woman got in a car with sombeody else on purpose or she was kidnapped. No one knows if she jumped from a moving car or was pushed out. No one knows exactly why the chopper crashed.

Sure, the collection of media and rubberneckers had their theories, but no one will ever know. No one will know if she got into a black suburban with a man. No one will know if that chopper clipped the tall pines or if something more catastrophic happened.

It’s the type of thing that will likely eat away at the victims’ families until they finally run into fate.

It’s the type of thing that makes me never want to answer the phone when I’m toiling away in a technicolor dream. It’s the type of thing that makes we wonder how easy it is for fate to dial the phone numbers with her long spindly fingers.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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