Sometimes, when you are traveling along up the highway, hoping for a safe, uneventful journey, on a long trip home after a very hard, but satisfying week, the unexpected has a way of finding you, whether you want it to, or not.
Yesterday afternoon, after being in my trailer, sick for nearly a week, it was time to get out into the fresh air a bit, and coincidentally, go see some old friends passing through on what has become, their annual early February work trip from southern Wisconsin to New Orleans, to do some very good deeds, helping folks hurt there, by Hurricane Katrina and failed levees.
Almost all of the 14 southern Wisconsin people I was going to meet, over at Exit 31 on I-55, at Hammond, Louisiana, were folks I had shared an amazing week of hurricane recovery work with in Pass Christian, Mississippi during the second week of February in 2006, just 5 months after the huge Category 3 Hurricane Katrina came ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in The Pass area with its 135+ mile per hour winds and 30+ feet of water surge, causing catastrophic property damage and over a thousand deaths on the gulf coast from the entire storm.
The February 2006 large work trip group of 38 volunteers, was one of seven that I helped organize shortly after Katrina, and included volunteers from Lutheran Church congregations in Stoughton, Baraboo and Verona, United Church of Christ congregations from Mineral Point and Dodgeville, and the United Methodist congregation in Belleville.
This was the group of southern Wisconsin Katrina Recovery “Sleet Storm” travelers. Front row: far right – Mark Mitchell. Back row: second from left – Fritz Aschliman; third from far right – Chuck Steudel.
Out of the work group of 14 I went to meet yesterday afternoon, I believe 13 of the 14 members were also on the February 2006 work trip to Pass Christian. Four of the men from yesterday’s group, including one of the two from my own hometown in this group, have been long-time, fellow volunteers who I have been privileged to share dozens of mission work trips with to Mississippi during the past 30 years.
It was about 4:00pm yesterday when the three-van caravan pulled into the Hammond gas station where I was waiting, and the very brief, but warm, little reunion finally took place. I say brief, because most of the group wanted to get on down the road to their final place of stay for the week, the Little Falls United Church of Christ, in rural New Orleans, so the group could watch the Super Bowl.
One of the trip organizers, Fritz Aschliman, who owns the Farmers Implement Store in Mineral Point, called me over to the supply trailer he was pulling with his passenger van, and made my day by giving me a good hunk of aged cheddar cheese, which he had been given by the master cheesemakers, Tony and Julie Hook, of Hook Cheese in Mineral Point, to bring along and distribute during the work trip.
As Fritz was reaching into the back of his van to share some great Chocolate Chip cookies with me that his wife, Wanda, baked for the trip (as she does on all of the volunteer work trips Fritz goes on), one of Fritz’s fellow volunteers from Mineral Point, Chuck Steudel, a retired nurse and EMS volunteer, moved in beside me, and we talked for a few brief minutes about great sleet storm and the Mississippi River bridge accident that we came upon, during our trip back to Wisconsin from that journey. It was Chuck, myself, and one other fellow from Mineral Point (who was also in the group yesterday), Mark Mitchell, a fireman, and flooring installer, who are the subjects of this post.
And so, here it is: the rest of the story.
Sleet Storm Midnight Mayhem on the Mississippi River Bridge at Memphis
It was a dark and stormy night, shortly after midnight, as our three van caravan made its way northward through Memphis on I-240, having left the demolished city of Pass Christian on the Mississippi Gulf Coast some six hours earlier.
We were part of an original work group numbering 38 volunteers from southern Wisconsin, who had spent the previous six days doing hurricane repair/recovery work in Pass Christian. Now we were on our way back north to our homes in Wisconsin, a long, tiring trip of just over a thousand miles.
Feb. 2006, 38 Katrina recovery volunteers, in Pass Christian, Mississippi, from southern Wisconsin. Author is on far left, in noticeable yellow t-shirt.
As we made our way north towards Memphis, we drove into a sweeping storm front, cold and very wet. Some of our original group had left earlier in the afternoon, and the rest would be coming along shortly, on their way home from the coast.
As we were driving through Memphis on the 14-mile stretch of I-240, to get to I-55 on the north side of the city, in West Memphis, the strong, cold rains we had been experiencing, turned into a vicious sleet storm, and our three vehicles became immediately coated in ice.
The rate of speed of the traffic we were in, just south of the Mississippi River bridge, turned into a crawl, barely moving as we turned onto the huge, metal, two-lane structure.
As it turned out, I happened to be driving the lead van in our little convey, and I was following directly behind a semi, moving very slowly the over the icy-covered pavement of the bridge.
With the sleet literally slamming us in sheets, we crept across the bridge, moving from Tennessee, into Arkansas, where we finally cleared the north edge by no more than a few yards, before both lanes of traffic stopped dead still. Both northbound lanes were completely blocked, by two side-by-side semi trucks directly in front of us.
At that instant, we all wondered, “Now what? How long are we going to be delayed on our journey?”
As we traveled, we had our CB radios set on Channel 15 to communicate with each other. I quickly moved up to Channel 19 where the truckers normally communicate with each other, to see if anyone ahead could advise of why traffic was halted in this vicious sleet downpour.
Just then, a trucker came on Channel 19 and talk excitedly about a huge accident having just occurred directly in front of him, when three vehicles: a salt truck, a large size pickup truck and a smallish-sized car all lost control on the sleet-covered road way and collided violently.
The trucker said that all three vehicles were just sitting there, several feet away from each other, as the sleet pounded down all around and on them. He then said that the salt truck and pickup truck drivers got out of their vehicles, and walked towards westward along the concrete-sided roadway to another vehicle which had stopped further down the road.
Then he said excitedly that the sedan driver was probably not going to survive, as, in the impact, the entire roof of the sedan had been physically ripped off and was laying nearby, leaving a jagged, sharp edge of metal all along where the top had been ripped off. He then said that the driver of the car was still in the driver’s seat and was slowly moving around, as if perhaps trying to get out of the car. He said he didn’t see how he would ever survive such an impact and what the metal edges had done to him.
Oh, boy… it was adrenalin time!
All of these descriptions from the driver had put me on a sharp edge, listening to what sounded like a sure fatal scene somewhere up ahead. I broke in on the trucker’s narrative and asked what trailer he was pulling, so that I could slide-skate up to his location with my EMT jump kit and see if I could help the sedan driver.
As I opened the van door to go back to the trailer in our convey to retrieve my jump kit, the trucker said he was driving a J.B. Hunt truck, and the wreck scene was about 20 yards in front of his rig.
As he told us this, I was looking at the back of a J.B. Hunt trailer directly in front of our van! OH MY GOD, HERE WE GO!
At this point, a real sense of urgency took over my mind, and my ten prior years of being a Wisconsin licensed Emergency Medical Technician were about to be put to use again, this time a long ways from home, in the middle of the night, in a pounding sleet storm. Thank goodness, I always carry that jump kit and blankets on these mission work trips!
I got out of the van, hurried quickly back to the trailer, and grabbed my jump kit, then slide-skated as fast as I could up along the semi, all while the sleet continued to pound down upon us. As I made my way along the truck, I was hurriedly pulling on a pair of vinyl gloves.
As I cleared the front of the truck, there it was, in all its nastiness, the salt truck over in the left lane, the pickup truck in the middle of the two lanes and behind the other two vehicles, and the topless, shredded sedan in the right lane, with the driver leaning back in his seat, his head and upper body covered in blood, ever so slowly moving his head.
For the moment anyway, he was apparently still alive.
As I approached the wrecked car, again, sleet falling from the sky in sheets, I quickly visually checked the area near the car, and noted an apparent yellow substance on the ground around the car and underneath it, and then smelled that it was apparently gasoline, which had leaked out in the crash.
I did not observe any flames at that time, probably due to the sleet. But, that could change possibly, with the right spark coming into play.
I leaned over the drivers door, trying to be careful not to cut myself on the jagged metal all around. Doing a quick visual of the driver’s head and upper body, I saw that when the roof had been ripped off, it had done a real number on his scalp, literally pealing it away from his skull, leaving it hanging by only a few inches of skin.
As I did this few seconds, “rapid” trauma assessment of his condition, I also did a quick mental recall of our crew in the vans, and of their Volunteer Information Sheets they had all filled out and given to me prior to coming on the trip, which would indicate if they had prior medical and/or other First Responder experience.
Retired Registered Nurse and former EMS Responder, Chuck Steudel.
I quickly squeezed the man’s arm, and told him I would be back with more help in one minute. I then slide-skated back to our vans where our crew was now assembled and and requested that Chuck Steudel, a retired registered nurse and former EMT, come with me right away to help me, and that Mark Mitchell, a Mineral point fireman, grab several EMS blankets from the trailer, and bring them up to the wrecked car, to help Chuck and myself.
Mark Mitchell, Mineral Point, WI Volunteer Fireman.
While Mark went to get the blankets, Chuck and I hustled back along the Hunt semi, and went straight to the wrecked car. I explained to Chuck that I felt we needed to get right up in the car with the driver to apply pressure and dress his wounds, before he lost any more blood and went into shock.
About that time, Mark arrived at the car with several EMS blankets, and he and Chuck put gloves on.
Chuck, Mark and I crawled up over the back of the car, positioned ourselves around the driver, and I did a quick physical rapid trauma assessment to see if there might be apparent broken bones or other serious lacerations that needed immediate attention from us, besides the head. This literally took only a few seconds, and we were ready to address the severe head injuries.
During this time Chuck and I were constantly talking to the driver, trying to reassure him, asking questions and explaining what we were doing. Whether he heard us or not, we will never know, as he was in a rolling conscious-unconscious state all the time we were administering aid to him, and never directly replied to our questions.
Mark quickly wrapped a couple of blankets around the man’s upper body, to try to preserve body heat, and as Chuck held the driver steady, as gently as I could, I applied the torn scalp back onto his skull, applied sterile gauze padding to the scalp, and as Chuck now held steady pressure on the gauze, I applied sterile gauze “cling’ (wrap) around the injured driver’s head, keeping pressure on the gauze pads to help stem the bleeding.
In a few minutes, we had driver’s head dressed, covered him in more blankets and were literally praying that an ambulance would arrive as quickly as possible so that the severely injured driver, could be transported rapidly to a hospital.
Considering the heavy sleet falling, there was no chance of having a medical helicopter come out to us, that was for sure! In the distance, though, we did hear the sound of a siren, so that we knew some emergency responder was trying to make its way to us.
About that time, two guys came sliding towards us from behind the front-row semis, apparently trying to see what the traffic holdup was.
As they approached the car, I looked in disbelief, and in fear, as I saw that one of the two guys was smoking a small cigar! Fricking incredible! Obviously, this guy hasn’t been at the scene of too many accidents where there is often gasoline present.
I turned away from the driver, while Chuck held the driver’s head in traction, and Mark continued to hold his body steady in his seat, and I screamed at the guy, “Get that God-Damned cigar away from here!!! Can’t you smell the gasoline around here?!!! Throw it over the edge of the concrete and get rid of it!!!” [Sorry, Lord, at was one of those times...]
When I screamed at him, the guy jumped, and a few seconds later realized what danger he had put all of us in, and taking the cigar from his mouth, he tried to flip it out and away from him, over the three-foot high concrete wall.
Chuck, mark and I watched in horror, as the ‘flipped cigar’ started its arc towards the top of the three-foot high concrete side barrier, and then was caught by the wind-blown sleet near the barrier top, and blown back towards us, hitting the ground a few feet away from the car the three of us and the driver were situated in, and rolled right under the car!
OH CRAP! WE’RE ALL DEAD! …was the thought that instantly flashed through my mind.
I turned to those two guys and said, “Guys, please go back from where you came from.” They turned around, and silently made their way back between the semis.
This was another of those times in my life, when I have literally had another, totally unplanned and unexpected scrape with death. It also emphasizes what a potentially dangerous activity that working as a First responder can be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the only threat to life and limb that I would face at that scene, before we finally left there.
Literally a few minutes later, Blessed be God, and the two brave paramedics who crept along on the shoulder and arrived at our location from in front of us, with their small ambulance!
They turned their rig around, parked some 15-20 yards away from the car we were on, and came over to check with us about the patient’s condition, and what should be done. Chuck and I quickly briefed them on what we had found during our initial assessment and what our medical treatment responses had been.
The guys asked how we thought the driver should be extricated from the car, and we responded that we thought we should move the seat back into a sitting position and slide a ‘long board’ right underneath the injured driver, apply the straps, and then slide the board out from the seat, towards the back of the car, and right onto their patient cot.
They agreed with our extrication idea, and that is just what the five of us did, and the unconscious driver was soon in the back of their heated ambulance, and within a few minutes, he was on his way to a hospital.
The ambulance crew told us before they left, that if the driver survived his serious injuries, it would only be because of the rapid emergency medical aid that we had been on the scene and in a position to provide to him so quickly.
Well, the three of us were momentarily exhausted, as our systems came down from the tremendously stressful moments we had experienced shortly before with the injured driver. And, we did have a good feeling of having done everything we could do to help the poor fellow, when fate and/or God had put us and our jump kit and blankets, only a few yards away, when he sat here with sleet pounding down on him as he bled profusely from his severe head injuries sustained in the crash.
Was that the end of the story? Well, not quite…
After the ambulance left, Chuck and Mark carried my jump kit back to the trailer, and got into the vehicles they had been riding in.
As I was sliding back around the lead semi in my lane, on his passenger side, a dark, old Pontiac sedan came creeping around the semi, on the right shoulder, and stopped even with the semi. The driver being a thin, black male, probably age 22 or so.
I thought to myself, where does this guy think he’s going? Both lanes of the highway are still completely blocked by the wreckage, and now, he just blocked the right shoulder so that no tow trucks or police could make it up to the accident scene coming from the bridge side of the accident.
As I was sliding back past him and the right side of the semi tractor, I motioned for him to roll down his window, which he finally did. All the while, it is still sleeting heavily.
When he had his driver’s side window down just a bit, I asked him where he thought he was going, as the road ahead was completely blocked until tow trucks could haul away the wrecked vehicles. I then said that it would probably take even longer now, as he had now effectively blocked one of the routes the tow truck might have used to get to the accident. I suggested that he back on out from where he was, so that a tow truck might get up in the accident area.
He didn’t say anything at first to my comments, but then, all the while glaring at me, he said, “Are you talkin’ to me? …. I said, are you talkin’ to me?” As he said it the second time, he reached down under the front seat and started to pull out a handgun.
When I saw what he was doing, I thought to myself, “You have got to be kidding me! After all that has just happened, this guy is pulling a gun on me, and is probably going to blow me away. This is a bunch of crap.”
I finally said to him, “You do what you want; I’m gettin’ cold.” And I turned and walked past his car, back around the front of the semi tractor, around to the driver’s side, and motioned for the trucker to roll his window down. I don’t mind telling you, that those several seconds that my back was turned to that fellow while I was calmly sliding away, I was a bit apprehensive about what that dude might be planning to do there.
He says, “What goin’ on?” I replied, “That guy on the right side of you, trying to sneak his way past all of us and get through the wreck, just pulled a gun of me when I said he was blocking the shoulder for the tow trucks. Would you see if you can get a hold of a cop on your radio or cell phone and have him work this way, and arrest that bastard?”
He replied, “I’ll do my best, buddy. That was some wonder work you and your two friends did for that car driver,” he said, “I sat up here and watched all you guys did for him, and it was a great thing. I’m glad you guys are out here tonight with us.”
I thanked him, and then kind of stayed by his side for several minutes, as he attempted to contact the police about the guy who had pulled the gun on me. Shortly thereafter, the black guy slowly backed his car back up the shoulder and onto the bridge the way he had come earlier. Perhaps he had thought better of his position there, virtually blocked off from trying to flee if the police did get near us.
Within 15 minutes after that, a police officer and the first tow truck did creep on into the scene, but from the other direction, and with a bit of jockeying around by the tow truck driver, he moved all three vehicles over to the far right, so that traffic could begin to creep ahead going north.
Once we finally were on our way again, we eventually drove out of the sleet, and when we got up into central Missouri the next day around noon or so, we pulled into a motel and slept for a couple of hours, with all of us being so tired and worn out from the experience the night before.
Personally, I figure God was watching over us pretty closely, and helped us (especially me) get through the midnight madness without harm (or loss of life) to us.
I was never able to find out if the injured driver did survive from his experience of that night; government regulations exist to keep ER medical information confidential to local EMS and family. I can only pray (and I have ever since that night) that he did survive.
If he did not, may he rest in peace and in God’s eternal care.
This past Sunday afternoon, when Chuck and I were discussing the sleet storm experience, over at our meet-up stop in Louisiana, he made a comment to me which was something like, “That’s why people like us go to the trouble to acquire EMT responder skills, so that when we inadvertently happen upon a serious accident like that in life, where people are critically injured, that we don’t just have to stand around there with our thumb up our ass, because we have no idea how to help.”
Well, Chuck, I never quite thought of it like that, but, I guess you have a somewhat colorful, but valid point.
I, for one, was very proud to be a part of the ad hoc EMS Response Team that Chuck, Mark and I made that terrible night, three years ago next week, in the middle of a sleet storm, on the Mississippi River bridge, in Memphis.
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