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Opinion

tom keane | opinion

Death on the highway

After a death on the highway, doubts and second-guessing begin

STEFANO MORRI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

At the moment of imminent death, my life did not flash before my eyes. I was too busy trying to get out of the way.

It’s Oct. 3, 9:44 a.m. My daughter, Lauren, and I are on the New Jersey Turnpike, driving south toward Washington. We’re in the center lane, a truck directly in front of us. I’m thinking of moving left to pass him when the truck’s right rear tire suddenly and catastrophically bursts, the percussive noise grabbing my attention. It immediately begins to careen out of control, pieces of tire pelting our car. I steer right and the truck skids right too. It then abruptly veers left, flipping on its side and striking a bridge abutment. It explodes into flames. We somehow pass through the fire and pull over to the side of the road, stunned. My hands start trembling.

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My daughter dials 911, hands me the phone, and we start walking back toward the crash. Black smoke pours from the scene, flames climbing quickly, the truck completely obscured. “Did you see anyone get out?” the emergency operator asks. I hadn’t but I would try to find out.

As we approach, we spot a nearby work crew — building a new bridge, apparently — trying to move a water truck into position. Suddenly there is another explosion, echoing under the bridge, reverberating through our bodies, pushing all of us back. Over the next 10 minutes there are two more.

Traffic going both ways is stopped, unable to pass the inferno that stretches across the road. Bizarrely, vehicles on the overpass — Interstate 195 — continue to move, even as the flames get so high that the bridge itself appears to be on fire.

Firefighters and police arrive. We watch, feeling useless, as they try to douse the blaze. There comes a point where we realize it no longer makes sense to stay. I had given my name and phone number to the emergency operator. Certainly, we figure, the crews working the crash have better things to do than interview us. And so we slowly go back to the car, get in, and drive off.

The next 20 miles or so have a surreal quality to them behind us: Since traffic is completely halted, we are for a long time the only ones on the road, driving in what feels like some version of post-apocalyptic America. Our conversation keeps obsessively circling back to what we had just experienced. Lauren picks up tweets about the crash from her smartphone. Most are angry complaints of those stuck on the highway. The doubts and second-guessing begin. Suppose I had decided to pass the truck just as its tire blew? Suppose I hadn’t been paying full attention, perhaps fiddling with the radio? Even now I can’t explain how we managed to swerve so quickly and still not strike other vehicles on the road. Somehow, we just did.

We learn later that the driver of the truck, 49 years old, was killed. The accident shut down the entire Turnpike for the entire day, perhaps its worst jam ever. The overhead was damaged by the fire and portions of I-195 are still closed as work has been accelerated to complete the new bridge.

I now worry when I drive near a truck. My daughter drove over a small tree limb and the resulting crack left her shaking. I recount the crash to others and some try to find meaning. “You were chosen,” they say, and I think they are wrong; someone else need not die to secure whatever destiny I may have. Others talk up the preciousness of life and “live every day as if it were your last,” and I understand their point. Yet my life hasn’t changed; I do the same things now as I used to do, the dull and the interesting, all mixed together.

What I am struck by is the utter randomness of it. If I hadn’t stopped to get coffee, I would have missed the crash altogether. If the cashier had been a little slower, I would have been one of those stuck in traffic, grumbling like everyone else. We think we are in control of our lives when in truth someone else is behind the wheel or, perhaps more accurately, no one at all.

Tom Keane writes weekly for the Globe. He can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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