It was a beautiful day. Mother and I had spent a companionable afternoon at the farm gardening. Late in the afternoon, almost the dinner hour, Silent Bob was on his way from work traveling out of town towards us.
The sky was a clear Texas blue, filled with clouds that looked like they came off of a Simpson’s cartoon.
One never to miss the chance of playing bridge with the man who taught me about deep time in molecular sequences, I had a date with George in town. And so I left knowing Silent Bob and I would likely pass each other on the major interstate that connects Houston with Austin, Highway 290.
In hindsight, about 10 miles behind me was a truck driver, a man in his late 40’s I would guess, driving a big rig with a flatbed trailer. Traveling 290 ahead of the big rig was a another man in a black pickup and slightly behind him, a woman in her Kia, a mother in her 40s, her small daughter in the passenger seat and her 9 year old son in the back.
At about 5:40 I noticed in front of me that across the three lanes of traffic going South and at the intersection of a famous outlet mall, traffic had slowed. Tail lights showed that something had caused a traffic jam. I wondered briefly why. The left hand and middle lanes had cars backed up and the right one, closest to the north bound traffic and bounded by cement pylons down the middle, had fewer cars. I was in a hurry and going 70 mph, but began slowing, maneuvering right.
From this point on, the events are part of me.
I looked briefly in my rear view mirror. I could see the cab of the semi coming fast towards the bunch of us, our cars not quite stopped but definitely slower than the normal speeds in access of 70. I could tell, the same way a mother reads the emotions of her child, call it female intuition, that the driver of the semi had no idea traffic had bottled necked up. Our speed couldn’t have been more than 40 mph, if that. Maybe he was texting, as I had earlier while I drove, maybe he was checking a gauge on his truck, but he had no idea what was about to happen
To my right was a silver Kia, the mother with her two children and in front of her, the pickup. I kept slowing down but the semi didn’t. I watched in horror as he plowed into the back of the Kia, the crash happening a mere 12 feet away from me. As the truck hit the Kia, it pleated the metal that was the trunk and back seat into the front seat and burst into flames. The front of the Kia collided with the rear of the pickup. Metal flew everywhere. The traffic was now fully stopped in the right lane. The truck driver slammed on his brakes and swerved into the middle lane, heading across into the left lane. I watched, as he was now only slightly faster than me, his brakes screaming, oil leaking from his chassis. I edged closer to the pylons, knowing that the car or trailer would hit me. He came to a stop 30 feet ahead of me. My truck was 6 inches from the cement barricade.
At the moment the semi hit the Kia, Zachary, the 9 year old in the back seat went to Heaven. All traffic at a dead stop and eery quiet to the disaster, the man in the pickup ran to the KIA. At least six other people did the same. Zachary’s mother was conscious but no one knew who if anyone was in the car with her. I watched as the truck driver exited his truck, his gait demonstrating that he was moving, but in disbelief, his mind still trying to reconcile the last 20 seconds of his life. As he got to the car, there was a frantic call for a fire extinguisher and the truck driver ran back to his truck, brought one back, and sprayed.
He had briefly stared at the carnage the way the rest of us did. He knew. We all knew.
We all moved, horrified and changed.
I watched and cried as several men tried to tear the accordianed car apart to get at the back seat. It was obvious Zachary’s mother had answered their questions and told them where her kids were, where her son was.
For the next 17 hours, Highway 290, the main road between Houston and Austin would be closed. The truck driver would cooperate freely. He will never be the same. None of the people who responded will be. I won’t either.
The horrific nature of the event, the sheer reality of human destruction that occurred is part of us.
As I lay in bed that night at the farm, Silent Bob held me. Much like he did when Jake left this earth. Somehow in my Mother’s heart, I knew that Jake saw that tree coming in the last few moments of his life here. I thought once again how much in 30 seconds my brain registered and how clear the thought was during that time that I would be part of the carnage. There is an unspeakable sadness to the knowledge that there are horrible things imbedded in the chemistry of our brain, some we live with only briefly as we move to Heaven and some we live with longer. I thought of Zachary’s mother and father and sister. I thought of the men and women who tried to help and the pickup driver who was one of the first to try. I thought of the big rig truck driver.
We all seek for purpose here. Some of us doing it without faith, some do so with faith.
Whatever God’s purpose is for me, I know this is part of it: to pray for Zachary’s family and the truck driver and his. That night as I lay talking to God, I remembered that each of my soldier sons had witnessed carnage in war. I know I am to pray for all the soldiers with an empathy that I can but barely understand, knowing that we are sometimes witness to things we wished we weren’t. I know I am to love God with all my heart and thank him that Jake and I and all those that are separated from their loves ones and share Easter with me, will one day talk with each other about how good Grace is.
Jake, say hello to Zachary for me, won’t you? I am praying for peace here, Son. Whisper in God’s ear, that I thank Him for the gentle touch of solace only He can give.
As I slowed my truck to watched in horror