This morning, my wife had to leave early for work.  While it’s not entirely uncommon for one of us to just keep sleeping as the other one gets up and gets dressed, for some reason I got up and milled about a bit this time, had a glass of orange juice and sat quietly with her while she loaded up her purse with all the stuff a pregnant lady tends to carry with her: a full box of Ritz crackers, four water bottles, a pack of sour candy she’s literally never liked before in her life, and so forth.

As she left the driveway at around 6:30, I trudged back into my bedroom, intent on getting another hour or so of sleep before starting my day officially.  I had just gotten myself settled in beneath the covers when my bedroom shook… there had been a sudden explosion of sound, like lightning had struck just outside my window.  Before I fully grasped what was happening, I was already back out of bed, heading for my porch, and for the awful sound of a car horn blaring; a sound I knew to mean the crash involved a car… and a driver that was no longer conscious.

My wife and I have been together for thirteen years – through all the best and all the worst of the Marine Corps – and just recently we became expecting parents for the first time.  As I slid my sweatpants on and took off sprinting down the road, all I could think about was my wife, and my baby, and that awful sound of the horn blaring… I prayed that when I got there, I wouldn’t see her little red Chevy Cobalt amid the wreckage.

I took a shortcut through the trees and emerged on the state route that leads to my little corner of the Georgia woods.  I should have been relieved to find that there was no red car in the turmoil, but as I approached the scene, I realized pretty fast that relief would not be forthcoming. 

Two pickup trucks had collided head on near the mouth of a bridge, and a few motorists had stopped to help.  Everyone got clear of the wreckage just as fire engulfed one of the trucks, and I settled in with one of the drivers on the side of the road.  He had a broken leg and was in shock, so I did my best to keep him calm and as still as I could.  From my vantage point, the other two guys looked to be in pretty rough shape… but they had police officers tending to them until the ambulances and fire trucks arrived just a few short minutes later.

I sat on the ground next to the guy whose truck was now nothing more than a smoldering wreck and tried to keep him talking.  We figured out right where it hurt and how to avoid putting pressure on it, and I consoled him as his fear and confusion started to manifest as anger and frustration.  He’s one tough guy – I’ve seen Marines fold under a lot less pain than he was managing.

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We put my new friend’s cell phone and wallet into his cowboy boots and placed them on the end of his stretcher just before they took him away.  Although we exchanged first names, I doubt he’ll remember mine – and with good reason.  The first responders got there quickly, acted professionally, and hopefully, were able to save the lives of the other two men that looked to have lost more blood than my broken legged friend.  About an hour after I left my house, I gave my statement to the local and state police, and trudged my way quietly back home through the woods.

I don’t know what caused the accident, and my friend was pretty shaken up and confused, but through that, he repeated to me that he “didn’t have time to react” several times.  It seems likely to me that one of the two vehicles must have crossed the center line – a supposition supported by the fact that I didn’t hear any tire squealing before the crash.  This incident may have been caused by texting, or some other form of distraction, while behind the wheel – I honestly just couldn’t tell you.

I’ve received training over the years in emergency triage, first aid, and some basic life saving skills, but I’ve found that in situations like these, there are some other basic rules to abide by when trying to help someone that’s just been in an accident.  These rules should be seen a supplement to any training you may have in first aid:

  1. Direct one person to call emergency services. Don’t simply shout to a crowd, “someone call 911!” The group will look at one another wide-eyed as they try to work out which individual will make the call.  Instead, point to a single person and instruct them succinctly to call 911.  Make it their responsibility to fulfill so you can keep your attention on the injured.
  2. Don’t move the injured unless you have no choice. It can be really tough to diagnose internal injuries in a doctor’s office, let alone through the dashboard of a newly crushed F150.  Don’t assume the person’s awareness level or description of their pain is indicative of being injury free – shock does some crazy things to the way you perceive your situation.  Wait for EMTs to arrive before you try to pull someone out of a wreck, unless there’s a pressing need to relocate them, like fire.
  3. Keep things calm. If you aren’t in a situation where you need to deliver emergency first aid, there’s still a real value in staying with the injured until emergency services arrive.  Having a set of eyes on a person is important, but it’s also important that you keep the injured calm.  As the adrenaline wears off, they could be in a great deal of pain, or shock could have them trying to do things that will exacerbate their injuries.  Just taking a knee and talking to them in a soothing voice can go a long way.
  4. Get out of the way when it’s time to turn things over. When emergency services are able to take over treatment of the injured, get up and out of their way, but don’t disappear.  In rural areas like where I live, they may be short-staffed and appreciative of an extra set of hands.  Make sure to give them room to work, follow their instructions, and offer to help if you’re in the position to do so.

I hope all three guys in this morning’s crash make it and enjoy a full recovery, and I hope none of you find yourselves in their position – but if you find yourself in mine, coming across an accident before first responders have arrived, don’t be afraid to step in and take charge or offer help.  Everyone responds to stress differently, and the folks that got there before you may be hesitant.  It’s okay to step on people’s toes to save someone’s life.  Make sure emergency services are en route, triage the situation, and keep things calm… because one day it could be my wife in that crash, and I pray if such a thing were ever to happen, that someone would be there to help her.