The Humanity of Crashes

I can’t even begin to count how many car crashes I’ve been to. I’ve seen every variation: car vs car, car vs train, car vs tree, head-ons where both cars inexplicably veered across the centerline to meet in the middle of the road….

In every case, though, there’s that moment when the sounds of busting glass and ripping metal stop and there’s an awful silence, punctuated only by the sounds of dripping fluids and the eerie popping sound that a hot engine makes cooling down.

People at their best

Long before anyone official shows up, ordinary citizens step up to help the injured. I’ve always tried to avoid photographing victims when they are at their most vulnerable. I’d rather shoot the folks who rush in and do their best to give aid and comfort to the scared, confused and injured.

All my negative sleeve says about the crash above is Highway 61 – man pinned in car – 5/1/67. I didn’t see the photo in The Missourian the next day, so it might not have run. I DID enter it in the Ohio College Newspaper Association photo contest in the fall and it won something.

I’ve always been touched by the tender way that the rain-drenched man, with a raindrop getting ready to run off his left eyebrow, cradles the head of the victim, while another man tries to force the car door open.

Even Joe James gets tired

Joe James started James Wrecker in 1930 with a 1927 truck he converted into a wrecker. If you were anywhere near Cape when you bent metal badly enough that you couldn’t drive, it was probably a James wrecker that hauled you off. I’m going to put together a collection of James’ photos one of these days, but this has always been one of my favorite photos of the man that I think was Joe James.

I don’t know if I just caught him when he was a little tired or if he was in a reflective mood.

The crashes were coming closer

I arrived a few minutes early for an assignment for The Gastonia Gazette, so I decided to kill some time waiting in my car. In the distance, I could hear a train whistle. I watched a car dart across the train crossing a couple hundred feet away and thought, “I should set up and photograph cars trying to beat the train.” Just as I thought that, a car crossed directly into the path of the train and was pushed up the tracks, throwing sparks and pieces for about a block and a half.

I ran to the car and held a 16-year-old boy while his life flickered away. A Gastonia policeman came up, gave us one look, reached for his radio and said, “You can slow ’em down. It’s just a 10-7 (radio code for out of service) N-word.”

This one almost got me

A few days later, I went out to a crash on I-85. It wasn’t much of a wreck and I don’t know if I even shot a frame, but it stopped traffic just over a rise. I turned to walk back to my car when I had a bad feeling. Just then, I heard an 18-wheeler lock down his brakes and plow into the string of stopped cars.

Within seconds, a trooper and some truck drivers turned to prying the victims out of the wrecks. I heard later that the trooper in the center of the photo got chewed out for allowing himself to be photographed without his hat. I never did find out if that was true or just a case of a another trooper pulling my leg.

It was several weeks before I got over the crazy feeling that my premonitions were coming true and that the crashes were getting closer to me every time.


7 Replies to “The Humanity of Crashes”

  1. Very moving. Our oldest grandson has just received certification for driving emergency vehicles — fire trucks and ambulances. I imagine he will soon have his own stories.

  2. Our Goldwing motorcycle group offers regular training to us to be ready to keep bad situations from getting worse and to help ourselves and victims. Many of us talk about personal actions and obsevations of crash scenes at these training sessions. I too have been touched by the caring and talent of passerbys who step up to the needs of absolute strangers. I recommend accepting First Responder training when offered. I don’t feel so helpless, useless, in these situations now. I tip my hat to the many officers and rescue personel who help clean up our mistakes.

    1. I’ve described before how I was a member of a rescue squad in Gastonia, NC. They put me on board mainly so I could have a two-way radio in my car so they could call me when they had an interesting run. I took a few first aid training classes, but my skills were limited. My role if first on the scene was to radio in a situation report, then offer aid and comfort to the victims by screaming, “I hear ’em coming, I hear ’em coming!”

      Still, I had three instances where I was the last human contact a victim had. I couldn’t save them, but I like to think I might have helped ease their passing.

  3. Man with the pry bar forcing damaged door open in first picture is Joe James, Jr., James Wrecker Service. Modern tools like the jaws of life help first responders extricate victims quicker and safer.

    1. I was on a rescue squad in NC that didn’t have any fancy equipment in the early 70s. One of the members drove a wrecker and hauled in an old junker and demonstrated how we could peel the top off the car in minutes using just a hacksaw and a come-along cable puller.

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