By Bruce A. Smith
First of a series.
The Accident, Thursday October 6, 2016, 6:30 pm:
As I crested over the top of Graham Hill I could see a line of three cars stopped in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and I skidded, but there was no screech. It was raining, so I just slid into the first car.
BAM! The front-end of my van crumpled and the read-end buckled on the car I had just hit. Its bumper and rear quarter panel folded into his trunk space, and then the whole car slid forward and smashed into the car in front of him. My van continue to roll and pushed those two cars into the third car – the one at the front of the line.
As we moved forward in this conga-line of twisted metal, broken glass and fractured plastic, I was able to steer to the right-hand lane and then onto the shoulder of the road. I came to a rest about twenty feet in front of the mess that lay in the middle of Meridian Avenue, the stretch of roadway known on maps as State Route 161.
We were directly across from Karen Lucas’ Art Studio. I could see a lot of cars in the parking lot, and I wondered if the three cars I hit had been waiting to turn into the lot. But I wasn’t able to process this as more than just a fleeting thought. I was in shock. I was dazed, and moved slowly.
I turned off the ignition, and put the keys in a vest pocket. I sat for a while and took stock of my situation. I was basically okay, but I slowly realized that my right foot was throbbing. My foot had apparently slid off the brake peddle upon impact and had jammed something under the dashboard. I had no idea of what that could have been.
I saw smoke and steam spew out from the front end of my van. The impact had been hard and I figured the radiator was toast and that the front-end was wrecked. I tried opening my door, but the metal squeaked and groaned. I knew it would take some effort to open the door past the buckled quarter panels. I was upset. I had just wrecked my friend Wayne’s van that I had just borrowed to run errands. Maybe it was totaled.
I was coming home from a therapy appointment at Good Samaritan Hospital, and had also bought a new printer for my computer with a royalty check that had arrived a few days earlier. My physical shock melded into a despair – how would I tell my friend I had destroyed his car. Worse, how could I get around without it?
As harsh as it seemed, I knew I had to call Wayne and tell him the news. I dug into my backpack and found my cell phone. I turned it on, and then fumbled with the overhead light switch, trying to get some light to see what I doing. I wasn’t able to turn it on, so I fished around in the pack for my little LED flashlight. I got it, and dialed Wayne’s number. He picked up on the first ring.
“Ah, Hi Wayne, this is Bruce. Um, I’m sorry to tell you, but I just had an accident with the van. I’m so sorry. I’m on the top of Graham Hill on Meridian. Can you get a ride and come up here?”
Wayne’s response was so typical of this Big Hearted Guy. His first question was simply: “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I relied, “but something is wrong with my foot. I think it’s broken, or maybe just the big toe. It got jammed in the accident.”
Wayne and I discussed how he could get a ride to the accident scene, as he is 85 years old and doesn’t drive anymore. His usual care giver was not available, so we agreed that he should call our mutual friend Ray, or his wife, Lisa.
Then a WSDOT Accident Response truck pulled up to the cars still in the roadway. Boy, that was quick, I thought as this state vehicle arrived about five minutes after the accident happened and before any so-called first-reponders. A young man got out of the pick-up, grabbed a broom and began sweeping the glass shards and metal bits off the side of the highway. He approached the drivers and by-standers in the art studio parking lot, but he never came over to me. After a few minutes, he put the broom back in his truck and drove off. I was stunned. I realized I was truly on my own – that help was not forthcoming even though a dozen people seemed to be within hailing distance. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911.
“Hello, what’s the nature of your emergency?,” the operator asked me.
“I’d like to report an accident,” I said. “I’ve been involved in a four-car accident on the top of Graham Hill on Meridian.”
“Is that also called State Route 161?
“The accident is at 252nd St?”
“That accident has already been reported.”
“But I need medical attention. My foot is injured. I need an ambulance and no one is here.”
“You need medical assistance? No injuries were reported when the accident was first reported to us.”
“That is incorrect. I’m injured and I need an ambulance.”
“Hold on.” She paused, and a second later a male voice got on the phone and identified himself as a medical professional. He began to conduct a medical assessment over the phone.
“What are your injuries?,” he asked.
“My foot hurts. I think it is broken.”
“Can you move your toes?”
“Some, but not much.”
We continued in that vein for several more minutes, and he asked me about my neck, my back and if I was bleeding or had hit my head. Then the 911 operator cut in and announced that an ambulance had been dispatched and should be on the scene in a matter of minutes.
During the course of this conversation, a young scraggly-haired man came over and knocked on my window and asked, “Are you alright?”
I opened the door a crack and said, “Yeah, I’m basically okay, but I messed up my foot. I’m on the phone with 911 and an ambulance is coming.” He waved and walked away. I never learned his name or if he was part of the accident.
Then I saw flashing lights. A Washington State trooper pulled in directly behind me, walked over to my door and yanked it open.
“How fast were you going?” was his first question.
“I was doing 45 going up the hill and had been accelerating as I approached the top of the hill,” I replied. “Then a truck cut in front of me, then veered into the right-hand lane. By the time he cleared my lane I was on the top of the hill and only then could see the cars stopped ahead of me. I jammed on the brakes but I couldn’t stop in time.”
“Are you the one asking for medical attention?”
At that point a Graham Fire Battalion Chief drove up in his 4×4 and parked in front of me. He got out of his vehicle and approached. The trooper left. The chief opened the door wider and asked me how I was doing. Again, I said my foot hurt and that I thought the toe was broken, or maybe something in the foot.
“Your foot slipped off the brakes and that’s why you couldn’t stop?,” the chief asked.
“No, my foot slid of the brakes upon impact and I hit something underneath the dashboard. I have no idea what I hit or why the foot hurts, but it does.”
Then, an ambulance pulled up and the big issue for me was avoiding the piercing, flashing lights. The chief took two steps back and blocked the worst offending strobes. One of his paramedics then stepped in. He conducted another verbal assessment and then announced he wanted to transfer me to the ambulance.
“Do you think you can walk?,” he asked.
“Probably, with assistance.” I unbuckled my seat belt and slid out of the van. My first steps were very tentative. I was surprised that I couldn’t put any weight on my right foot. The paramedic reached for me and tried to hold me. I had to put my right arm around his shoulder and we began hobbling.
“Hi, I’m Mike,” said the paramedic.
“Good to meetcha, Mike. I’m Bruce, and boy I’m glad you’re here.”
In the ambulance Mike wrapped the blood pressure cuffs on me and conducted vital sign checks. I was 160/100. High for me, and I was glad that I was in an ambulance in case I had a stroke from the elevated BP, or an embolism from the toe, like I had seen in a episode of House on TV. Not likely, but those were my fears.
Mike needed information, such as address and phone numbers, and it all became a blur. In a pause, I called Wayne and asked him what his ETA was.
“Ray’s not there?” he exclaimed. “I called Lisa for a ride, but Ray answered the phone instead and we decided that he would go to you first and see what you might need. Is he there yet? I called a long time ago.”
“I’ll call you when I know more, Wayne.”
I hung up, and Mike continued to attend to me. Then, he left for a moment to discuss the accident with his colleagues. Apparently, other participants in the accident also reported injures. I overheard one say that there was a report of a neck injury, possibly whip lash.
Then Ray arrived. “It took me a long time to get to you!” he called out as he entered the ambulance. “There’s another accident on the hill, and traffic is backed way up. I had to park about a quarter-mile away and walk in.” Ray was wearing a greenish-yellow reflective vest, which was very wise I thought on this night of accidents, rain and confusion.
I began telling him what happened, and Mike asked questions about the disposition of the van and how I would get back from Good Sam, which is in Puyallup. The enormity of the event was sinking in: The van had to be towed somewhere, and I was about to ride to a hospital. Then later that evening I was going to be released and would need transportation home to Eatonville. I had smashed my friend’s car. I was overwhelmed. I reached out and held Ray’s hand. I began to cry. I wept and wept. I looked at Mike and said between sobs, “He’s a good friend.” I turned to Ray and announced again, “You’re a good friend, Ray, you really are . Thank you so much.”
“Don’t worry,” He said. “We’ll take care of everything. I’ll get the tow truck and take care of the van; I’ll talk to Wayne and make sure he’s okay; and Lisa can take you home from the Emergency Room when you’re done up there. Don’t worry. We’ve got it all covered.”
“Thank you, than you, than you….,” I said as I wept, speaking in gasps.
Then the trooper came in and handed me a couple pieces of paper, announcing that I was being cited for the accident, with the cause being “speed too fast for the conditions.” I was also receiving a citation for driving without proper insurance, as the insurance card I had given him was out of date.
“Don’t worry,” the trooper said. “If you have proper insurance you can just show the judge and it’ll probably be dismissed.”
“Can I show you the proper card now? I can probably find it,” I said.
“No, it’s too late,” the trooper said, and left.
A few moments later, Mike announced they were ready for the run to the hospital. As we turned around I saw a sea of emergency vehicles and personnel – a Graham fire engine was turned perpendicular to block the highway, a second ambulance was parked in the art studio area, the trooper and Battalion Chief both had their vehicles, and other lights seems to be flashing along the entire slope of Graham Hill. I didn’t care and closed my eyes.
When I got to Good Sam, I was greeted oddly by one of the nurses: “Ah, you’re the first of the Graham Seven.” I looked puzzled and she reiterated that seven vehicles had been involved in multiple accidents on Graham Hill that evening, and I was the first injury to come in.
After X-Rays and a physical exam, I was told that I had no fractures, but most likely had severe ligament and tendon damage. I was fitted for a “walking boot” and crutches.
“Take it easy for a few days,” was the advice, and I was given some pain killers. One of the ER desk clerks called Lisa and got me squared away for my ride home.
A week later my foot still hurts, but the doctors say that a second round of X-Rays still can’t find any fractures. So, I continue to hobble, and ponder the accident that has caused so much pain.
I was angry for days for being blamed for hitting people that I couldn’t see on the road. Why were they parked on the roadway! I said to myself. Others feed my anger: “Was it an illegal left turn?” people asked. “There’s got to be double yellow lines there!”
Slowly, though, I accepted that I had to bear a fair measure of responsibility – I was the one who hit them.
But others contributed as well, such as the people who forced those drivers to make a dangerous turn without proper lanes or signage. People need to be able to turn on Graham Hill and get to their businesses, churches, and homes. Yet, there is not one single turning lane on all of Graham Hill except for one right-turn lane coming out of a RV park adjacent to the art studio.
As I pondered, I realized that there are lots of people to blame. But, rather than accusations I chose something different – to fix the road, not fix the blame. Simply, there are many of us who have responsibility for causing what happened on Graham Hill.
High on my list are the state road managers who have allowed a busy state highway to not have any turning lanes so that folks can not make safe left-hand turns.
Then there are the county land planners who have allowed dozens of residential developers to build their sub-divisions but not require them to install turning lanes so that the homeowners can access their neighborhoods and not cause an accident.
And the road designers who built a highway over a hill that has sharp contours that cause blind spots – vehicles coming up the hill can not see vehicles stopped on the downward side of the hill until then reach the summit. Under some conditions, there is insufficient time to stop in time – the visibility is simply not there.
So State Route 161 on Graham Hill needs at least three things:
Left-hand turning lanes installed in the center roadway.
Right and left turning lanes installed on the shoulders so that folks can access the residential communities.
Re-shaping the contour of SR 161 over the top of the hill so that visibility is improved, sufficient for all oncoming traffic to see anyone stopped on the downside of the hill.
As a result, I am inviting everyone to help transform the Graham Hill road and make it safer for everyone.
In future articles on Graham Hill and SR 161, I will be reporting on my efforts to fix this road. I will be interviewing state officials, politicians, and business groups to uncover what needs to be done and who is doing what. I will encourage the homeowners of Graham Hill to join us, so that we will be able to develop the consensus necessary to “get ‘er done.”
The crash is long gone, but the work is just beginning.