Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Someone Saved My Life (Our Lives) Tonight

The bad luck train made yet another stop at the O'Connor house Sunday night, but as the title of this posts suggests, divine intervention and happenstance stepped in and saved the day and our lives. We hit a bull elk at 75 mph on Interstate 90 heading towards Missoula at about 10pm Pacific Time. He was bigger than a horse and, for a flash, a thing of beauty.

It had been a glorious day. Liam won a free pass to Silverwood from his school last year for reading and had asked us at least 50 times when we could go...and after all we've been through this year it seemed right to take a day off from the stress of the house and do something fun with the kids. His buddy Rowan spent the night on Saturday and we'd cleared it with his folks, so on Sunday morning I jumped in the van with Jen, Quinn, Rowan, and Liam and headed west to Silverwood Theme Park to take in the last day of the season. We rode roller coasters, krazy bumper kars, the log flume (I got soaked much to their delight), and merry go rounds. We ate cotton candy and kettlecorn and we played midway games. We stretched the fun out as long as we could and then began the trek home at about 7pm local time, all smiles.

On the drive over I'd noticed an unusual amount of animal carnage on the highway and commented to Jen that we had better be careful on the drive home. Thinking about it now, I don't ever recall seeing more dead deer, other animals, and blood spatterings on a stretch of interstate, it was literally every mile or two where signs of a vehicle-animal accident were visible.

After leaving the park and getting closer to Coeur d'Alene, we decided to give the boys one more treat and stopped for dinner at Tomato Street. We'd really wanted to get on the road as soon as possible, but at that point it didn't seem like it would make much difference and Tomato Street is a fun family restaurant. After dinner, we even paused to observe the lunar eclipse in all its glory before Jen snapped us out of our daze with a, "we better get on the road".  Off we went.

The drive between CDA and Missoula goes over several mountain passes and through national forest. It is a sparsely populated area, heavy with timber, light with people, and full of wildlife small and big. I was extra cautious, even going below the speed limit at times when we were driving through an area that felt "gamey".  So you might imagine my surprise and horror, when right outside of Kellogg, ID, a massive bull elk appeared out of nowhere in my headlights. A car with its brights on had just passed us going west and I was just getting ready to curse him when the elk, standing taller than a horse with its beautiful coat and rack, materialized in front of the car. It was surreal and could see the lights of the exit and the Wal-Mart...we were clearly right next to a populated area yet here was this beautiful wild creature standing in the road.  All I could think at that moment was, "don't swerve....don't swerve". It all happened so fast yet the time between when we saw him and when I hit him was slow motion in my mind . I remember he started to jump towards the middle of the interstate and I had time to veer, not swerve, right.  The slight movement may have saved our lives because we only hit the left hindquarter of the beast. had we hit him straight on, who knows if I'd be writing this post now! He rolled up the hood and his butt smashed through the front windshield. His head jerked back and hit the driver's side rear view mirror and sent it hurling through the driver's side window and into my face. He then spun down the side of the car and vanished into the dark, scraping the car with his antlers along the way. I had the wherewith all to get to the side of the road. For whatever reason our airbags did not deploy but there was glass everywhere. I could hear one of the kids screaming and the engine running. Jen sprang into action immediately,  first checking on the kids (Liam sat in stunned silence, Quinn remained asleep throughout the whole thing to the point we thought he had a head injury, and Rowan was shaken and upset), then getting a towel and telling me to press it against my head before calling 911. I sat frozen in the driver seat with glass everywhere and chunks of the front windshield swaying in front of my eyes. I could feel blood running down my face but knew enough to know not to panic. I really wasn't sure how badly I was hurt but knew I was in some trouble. Jen is a nurse and knew what needed to be done. She was nothing short of amazing.

About 15-20 seconds after we hit the elk, a pickup truck came through... we aren't sure if the elk was dead on the highway or if he tried to get up, but the pickup slammed into the elk making an awful sound, and then all we could hear were tires screeching and all I could see was Jen looking back in horror screaming, "oh no". The truck skidded by us, missing us by perhaps 2-3 feet and came to rest about 15-20 feet in front of us and then there was just silence. I remember it looked like a movie, with our headlights showing the truck and smoke billowing out...I could smell gas and we quickly realized the truck in front of us was leaking fuel badly. No one was moving in the truck.  It seemed like only seconds later that the first responder arrived.

I cannot say enough about the first responders that night. They were professional, efficient, caring, and re-assuring. There were firefighters, ambulances, and sheriff deputies all doing their tasks and taking care of business, They quickly ascertained the pickup was not going to blow up and divided up into teams to care for the passengers in both vehicles. Once they figured out I was not going to bleed to death and no one else in the car was injured, they got the kids out of the car and started working on me. They put a neck collar on me first, then brought in the backboard and the ambulance. As odd as this might sound, I was not scared. I knew I could not undue what had just happened and couldn't do anything about the pain; that realization almost made the pain go away.  All I could really feel was cold...I was really, really cold. And I felt awful that we were entrusted with the safety of someone else's kid and I had gotten into a wreck. Even though there were many people working on me, I concentrated on Jen and the main EMT who was giving me instructions. I tried to focus on him and keep talking. And I tried to catch her face and reassure her everything was going to be okay. She beat me to it every time. They all just kept commenting on how lucky we were to be alive.

At first I tried to not go in the ambulance, recognizing it was probably going to cost several thousand dollars for the quick trip to the Shoshone Medical Center. I think I said something like, "can't we just try to dive the van there"? Jen was insistent though, thankfully, and so into the ambulance I went and headed to the local ER, IV started "just in case". The X-Rays showed nothing broken (although we discovered I have an extra vertebra in my neck and arthritis) so the nurses and doctor proceeded to remove the glass shards from my head and arms and legs and start patching me up. I got a few stitches in my forehead and upper lip but my lower lip wasn't so lucky.  It was split and mangled and the extremely capable Dr. Lawhorn spent about 45 minutes suturing my lip back together, When all was said and done it looked like I'd been in a bad bar fight and hit in the head with a broken bottle!

The deputy who helped us went so far out of his way to make sure we were safe...we just couldn't have been luckier. He arranged for a hotel room and transported our family, in two shifts, to the hotel.  He stayed with me in the ER, telling me stories and just generally making sure I was okay. He gave us his card, called his friends who could help us with an automobile, and called the hotel later to make sure we were okay. The good folks of Kellogg were wonderful.

While I was laying in the ER that night I learned a few things: I learned that this time of year there is at least one animal - vehicle accident a night in Shoshone County, Idaho; I learned that Idaho has a law that allows a person to collect road kill - and that this time of year folks listen to their scanners and rush to the scene of an accident to try and salvage game meat. I learned that Kellogg has a great restaurant that is only open seasonally called the Moose Creek Grill, and I learned an elk herd crosses the highway with regularity, Also I was reminded, once again, at how strong my wife is as she was a super trooper and never faltered under pressure.

So, I finally can say I bagged a bull elk...just not the way I ever intended. And now that I am 3 days post accident and all cleaned up, it doesn't look too bad! I might even look a little more Montanan! Life is good. We are lucky to be here and grateful for all we have and all those who love us and we love.