We stood bunched together, staring out the second-story windows across the back of our downtown building, exchanging somewhat guilty glances, but transfixed anyway. How could we not be? The scene below was somehow riveting and simultaneously made us want to bolt back into our offices, pretending we'd never seen it.
The accident that had just happened at the intersection at the end of the block behind us had sent a car careening into the brick building on the other side of the traffic light. Shattered glass littered the asphalt, and a small puff of smoke rose from the car's crumpled front end, seemingly fused to the building. A few people scrambled about, but because we were inside and half a block away, we could hear almost nothing.
Emergency vehicles began to arrive, and the professionals took over. Chuck, one of our co-workers a floor below, had heard the crash and run to the scene. When he returned we asked him about the condition of the driver of the car that had hit the building.
Chuck looked back at us grimly. “I think he's dead,” he said. We fell silent.
Several long minutes later, we suspected Chuck was right. The emergency technicians had managed to extricate the driver from behind the wheel, and we watched as the man, now shirtless, was put on a stretcher and wheeled toward the waiting ambulance, the crew frantically administering chest compressions the whole way.
We felt our suspicions confirmed when the ambulance remained in the road, making no attempt at a quick getaway. It had arrived with all haste, siren and lights fully activated, but when it finally drove away, it moved in tragic slow motion, just a rooftop light silently blinking.
The man in the back of that ambulance was not to blame for the crash. The other car had run the red light.
We looked at each other, trying to read stricken thoughts and faces. Almost all of us drive through that intersection every day, and we properly observe the signals of the traffic light, just as this man had done. What an incredible difference one instant, one piece of unfortunate timing, can make. Our illusions of having ultimate control suddenly lay as shattered, at least for the moment, as the windows of the car below us.
I was thinking about the phone call. Someone, perhaps a wife, maybe a girlfriend, a parent or a child, was going to get a phone call soon, a call that would also come unannounced through an intersection in time and change their lives forever. It would be a call they were in no way prepared to answer. And someone, too, would have to make that call.
I thought about the absolute normalcy of it all. The driver of this car was likely on his routine commute home, a drive he'd probably made hundreds of times. He may have been listening to the radio, singing along with a favorite tune or chuckling about some overly enthusiastic caller on a talk show. Maybe he was preoccupied with thoughts about his family and the coming evening.
And then he was struck, as if by lightning.
Most of the unspoken questions on the second floor were the kinds that come without answers. Certainly, this man didn't deserve such a fate. Does anyone? Why him? Why hadn't a car come hurtling in our direction on any of the numerous trips we've taken through that traffic light? Is fate really that capricious? In the end, how much say do we really have?
I don't know.
I do know that when we left work not long after, my colleagues and I carefully looked both ways as we drove through the intersection. I know we noticed the carefully swept pavement and the spray-painted lines left by the police who came to investigate. I know that we breathed silent sighs of relief when we were safely through the light.
And I know that when we got home, we hugged our loved ones, and we held on a little tighter. S
Tom Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education. The accident occurred several years ago at Second and Canal streets.