February 27, 2013

Lest We Forget - Part 2

Now that I've posted a factual account of what happened during our van-roll (Lest We Forget - Part 1), I'm moving on to a more journalish type of entry from start to finish. I have a lot of thoughts I need to get "on paper," so feel free to stop reading whenever you get bored. This is more for me than for you.

Crystal and I are usually always running late, mostly due to last minute diaper and clothing changes. Our house is ALWAYS on the go, to say the least, which makes it very difficult to maintain consistent schedules. Last month, we decided to up our game and ensure that every day, NO MATTER WHAT, we would have family and individual scripture study/prayers. We created a chart and, if we could complete it without skipping a day, established a fantabulous reward. We would travel to Salt Lake City for a little stay-cation at a hotel. Some of our fondest memories have been during these stay-cations, so we had strong motivation to finish the chart. It was very tough, but WE DID IT!

Despite our overwhelmingly busy lives, Crystal and I still scheduled our weekend at the hotel. We needed a break, and even more, we earned it. On Saturday morning, we filled our van with luggage, and shipped out. We had one more stop on the way to the hotel, though. Crystal and I were going to the temple. We had a lot to be grateful for, and attending the temple was the last empty square on our chart.

You can probably imagine my frustration when we rolled our van. After the chaos stopped and I verified my family was safe, I remember mentally pounding my fist on the dashboard and thinking, "You have GOT to be kidding me! We just finished this chart and were on the way to the TEMPLE, for crying out loud!" Once my senses returned, however, I realized that it was because we had finished our goal chart and were on the way to the temple that we were so miraculously protected. Even three weeks later, Crystal and I still have no idea what actually happened during the crash.

Now back up a little. As we drove from Tooele to the crash site, I was talking to my older sister, Angela, on the phone. I hung up with her only seconds before our van started sliding. I try not to imagine what she might have heard on the phone had I still been talking to her. I know that swearing would not be part of the sounds (I just don't do that), but that's the least of my concerns. Frantic cries, children screams, grunts, shouts, shattering windows, crunching fiberglass, folding metal, banging debris. When someone mentions PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), most of us immediately think of soldiers, and rightly so. However, I can't help but think that our family is enduring a bit of PTSD ourselves. I attribute that mostly to the sounds, topped with our own wild imaginations of what could have happened.

During the crash, my family was protected and relatively uninjured, but not unharmed. I haven't had a solid night's sleep since the accident. On many occasions and without any instigation, I've felt an overwhelming need to cry. My wife... well, she probably wants to keep her own issues to herself, but she's struggling. She still panics every time we take the on-ramp from Tooele toward Salt Lake City. Our two oldest boys are lashing out, getting into more trouble and throwing tantrums for completely unnecessary reasons. Our two youngest boys cry and scream all day long, often without any motivation. Our youngest boy constantly wants to be held, has nearly lost his appetite, and won't let us out of his sight. If we disappear to another room, he chases after us. If we close a door between us, a full blown meltdown ensues. When we go for a drive, our van is deathly silent, broken sporadically with comments about our driving. "Good turn, Mommy." "I don't like it when you start driving that fast. The car makes too much noise." "That's a red light, so start slowing down now." "Now, Daddy, you need to be extra careful driving today because the ground is covered with snow and ice." Kids shouldn't have to worry about things like that.

Many people have asked what went through my mind as our van started rolling. I've joked around, often referencing Brian Regan's comedy routine about Evil Knievel (youtube link), but I did have a lot of thoughts run though my head. It's crazy how slowly time moves during a high-tension event. When our van started sliding, I remember placing my right hand on the dashboard and placing my left hand on my wife's shoulder to reassure her. I've been in quite a few fender benders, so a sliding car wasn't all that terrifying to me. However, once we started sliding off the road toward the steep embankment, very specific procedural items flooded my mind. I thought of my friend in 11th grade who had his arm busted in half by an airbag, so I pulled my hand away from the dashboard. I thought of my boating excursions as a teenager. My favorite activity was getting yanked around by the boat roped to my tube, and my favorite part of the activity was wiping out. The more violent, the better. Every time I flew off the tube, I had a list of action items. I would clench my teeth (so I didn't bite my tongue) and pull my head, arms, and legs in to form a partial fetal position (which seemed to help with the whiplash). These same thoughts ran through my head right before our van crashed, and they probably saved my life. Had I not tucked my head down, the crushed roof might have broken my neck. Right as the van started rolling, I even remember having the same exhilarating rush that I used to have while boating. I might have even grunted a challenging, "C'mon!" but I can't be sure.

During the rolling, I focused on keeping my head forward and arms tucked in. I didn't want one of them sticking out the window while the van rolled on my side. I had my eyes opened, but squinted, to protect them from shattering glass. I don't remember seeing a lot of ground as we rolled. Out my front window, I mostly saw the sky. There were many distinct bangs as we rolled, but I was too disoriented to notice where and how. Interestingly enough, not once during the accident was I ever concerned with my personal safety. I'd like to think I was comforted and knew I would be alright, but perhaps I was just too stupid to recognize our danger. After all, I was living a temporary teenage moment again.

After our van halted and I realized that we were on our wheels again, the first thing I noticed was the cold breeze coursing through our van. Windows had obviously broken, but mine were still intact. Next, I watched all of the cars surrounding us drive away. There were at least 5 other vehicles around us when we crashed, but not one of them stopped. I couldn't believe it. The more I think back about it, the more it pisses me off. Seriously. Anyway, a few more vehicles swerved out of the way, barely missing my side of the van as they continued on their way. I gave up looking for help and turned to my family. I put my left hand on my wife's shoulder and pulled her back against her seat, checking her for blood or injuries. Although she claims otherwise, I saw hysteria and panic in her eyes. She screamed a couple times as she looked past me at the cars dodging past our front end.

At that point, Crystal put the van in park and turned off the engine. We exchanged a worried glance, then turned back to our boys. All four of them were terrified and crying. I checked everyone for any signs of injury (there were none), but my eyes lingered on our 2nd son, Dawsen, who just turned 6 years old last week. He expresses his emotions very differently than his brothers. Rather than throwing outburst cry-fit tantrums, Dawsen is a lot more calculated. He contains his emotions, even when crying. A few weeks ago, Dawsen spilled boiling water on his hand while trying to make himself a Cup Noodles. Crystal heard a cry from the other room, then eerie silence. She called for Dawsen, but he wouldn't respond. She finally found him hiding behind a chair in our front room. His face contorted in agony as he cupped  his injured hand, but not a sound escaped his lips. The same thing was happening again. While Dawsen's brothers wailed, Dawsen locked eyes with me and pleaded silently for help with that same agonized expression. I asked him if he was alright, and that's finally when the tears started to flow. "When do we get to go home to bed, Daddy?" was the only thing he could get out between the hysterical hiccups. Like his mom, Dawsen loves his bed and finds great comfort in sleep. This was his way of saying he just wanted it all to end. I also remember Dallen, our oldest, crying that we weren't going to make it to the temple to finish our chart. He had been so proud of our family for our accomplishment. Lastly, much to my amazement, our one-year-old, Dax, still had his binkie in his mouth. I think that was our last binkie, so many of you parents can understand how much of a blessing it was that he still had it in his mouth. He cried for awhile, of course, but then the pacifier kicked in and did its trick. Just like Dawsen needed his bed, Dax needed his binkie.

Crystal was the first person to really digest our predicament. "Call 911!" she ordered me over the screaming. I moved to dig into my pocket, but I realized that I still had my cell phone gripped in my right hand. I thought nothing of it at the time, but we later realized what a huge blessing this was. Crystal's phone, which had been stashed in a net basket between our seats, was gone (it had flown out a window during the crash and I found it buried in the snow about 30 feet away). I called 911 and an ambulance and a firetruck arrived within 5 minutes. They had been parked at the nearby Flying J.

While I was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, a man named Gerald knocked on my wife's window. Finally, someone had stopped. He first asked us if anyone was hurt, then, recognizing the dangerous location of our van, backed his half-ton pickup through the oncoming traffic to create a buffer between my side of the van and the approaching vehicles. No one hit his truck and he did nothing to help us besides offer his aid, but Gerald is a hero. Gerald is my hero. Take a lesson from Gerald and stop next time you see a car crash, regardless of how minor the accident is or how helpless you feel. Gerald stayed with us up until our ride arrived to take us home. We didn't need Gerald there, but we needed Gerald (if that makes any sense). Do a good turn. Be someone else's Gerald.

By the time the ambulance showed up, I was out scouring the road's shoulder for our ejected possessions. I often criticize myself for leaving my family buckled and abandoned in the van. My kids were bawling and terrified. Crystal was frantic. Why would I put our crap above their needs? My only explanation is that I was in what I call "zombie mode." Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I have to place myself in zombie mode or else I start thinking too much and convince myself to stay in bed. I just shut off my brain and go through my habitual motions. I think I did the same thing at the crash scene. I turned off my brain and went through the motions. Kids need medical attention? No. Stuff on the ground? Pick it up.

Anyway, I'm grateful to report that the EMTs took care of my children. They were leaning in windows, sharing treats, calming children, and hanging blankets over the windows to block out the blanketing snow. As I wandered around looking for our junk, I noticed Crystal standing far off, talking on my phone. She was in a thin dress without a coat, but seemed completely unaware of that fact as she relayed the news of our accident to our families. It was during this time that my parents hopped in their own two vehicles and started the long, slow trek through ugly weather to our house. Then Crystal called my second wave of heroes for the day, Jen and Jared. I consider them both friends, but we hadn't really spoken (besides the occasional howdy in a grocery store) for years. That fact didn't matter. Jared hurried out to his own van and CAREFULLY rushed to our aid.

In the meantime, I sat in a highway patrol car, offering scattered and confused details to the police officer about what happened during our crash, while my wife and four sons warmed up in the back of the ambulance. Again, no medical attention was necessary beyond a quick check of my oldest boy's bonk on his head. Luckily, the highway patrolman didn't give my wife a ticket, since we were driving at a reasonable speed and didn't cause any property damage to anything but our own vehicle. The whole situation was just bad luck, or maybe good luck. I've often wondered if God made that accident happen. If we hadn't crashed, what terrible tragedy awaited us on our way into Salt Lake City?

When Jared showed up with his van, my family piled in while Jared and I transferred my essential belongings. Because we were already on the on-ramp, the only way to get home was to continue onto the freeway, then turn around at Salt Air and come back home. That was a VERY long 20-mile drive. I sat in the back seat between my two oldest. They gripped my arms with trembling hands while our babies stared out their middle-seat windows with anxious bug eyes. I felt so vulnerable. We all did. When I get nervous, I talk a lot. Just ask my wife about the obnoxious and scatterbrained conversations I've had with pre-op nurses. Jared got an earful that day, which no doubt included many comments about how to drive. He kindly allowed me to talk it out without any rebuttals.

We made it home without further incident, then a half-hour later, my parents showed up. Third wave of heroes. They left their van for us, stayed for a couple hours to reassure and comfort us, argued that we should still go to the hotel, then went back home. Oh, and my dad and I went for a quick run to the grocery store to buy some comfort food. We tried to stop by the tow yard to take pictures of our van, but the yard was closed for the weekend. OH, and how could I forget that my mom spent an hour deep cleaning our house? Crystal utterly refuses that sort of help, but on that day, Crystal offered little resistance as she gratefully watched from the couch.

Crystal and I didn't even consider my parents' suggestion at first, but as the hours moved on and the sky/road cleared, we decided that a vacation had become more necessary than ever. We said an earnest prayer of thanks, then loaded my parents' van with our stuff and tried again. I drove this time, by Crystal's suggestion, because Dawsen had postulated something along the lines of, "Mommy, I'm never getting into a car with you again while you're driving." We knew the reservation would pass, but offered them a bit of comfort in the meantime. This was a huge sacrifice for Crystal, too. She suffers from severe passenger anxiety and has been driving our family around for the past 8 years.

On our way to the hotel, we drove VERY slowly past the crash site, partly to prevent another crash, and partly to try and examine the damage on the side of the hill. There was too much snow. We couldn't see anything. Once at the hotel with a hearty KFC dinner in our bellies, the six of us changed into our swimsuits and spent the rest of the evening at the hotel pool. Crystal's parents (heroes #4) drove to the hotel and visited with us while we swam and enjoyed a much needed soak in the hot tub. I say heroes #4 because they took care of our babies, who were still quite frazzled over the incident earlier that day. Dax usually loves to swim, but he treated the pool like a plague. When we got too close to the water, he'd bellow like someone was branding him with a hot iron. We eventually convinced him to get in the water, but only while clinging with white knuckles to his mommy. It didn't last long, either, and that's when Grandma Stanger showed up and intervened. Duncan, our two-year-old, lasted a bit longer, but he spent a good chunk of time on Grandpa Stanger's knee.

We waited a week for our insurance to process our claim and cut us a very considerate check for our totalled van. After a long and careful inspection of potential replacements (mostly done by Grandpa Stanger, our in-house vehicle expert), we finally purchased a replacement van a week ago. Things have seemed to calm down a lot since then. When my puppy died back when I was in 8th grade, the only action that eased my pain was to purchase a new puppy. Then my dead dog's toys and memories were replaced with the living dog. I expect much of the same has happened with our new van, replacing old memories with new. And me... well, I always love a new toy to play with.

I will end my dialogue here. I could keep going on forever with a daily play-by-play, but I think I've covered the necessities for my mental health. If you've made it this far and still have questions, please write them in the comments to this post and I'll respond with answers.

February 19, 2013

Lest We Forget - Part 1


On Saturday, February 9, 2013, my family and I were in a roll-over accident. Let me give you a couple of background points before I jump into the pics and videos.
  • The six of us were traveling in our 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan at about 40-50 mph.
  • My wife, Crystal, was driving and I was in the passenger seat. Our four sons, ages 1, 2, 5, & 7, filled up the seats behind us.
  • We were on our way to a hotel in SLC for a weekend stay-cation, so naturally our van was packed full of hotel necessities.
  • We also had a healthy quantity of recyclables in the van, which we had planned to drop off at my parents' house in West Jordan (since Tooele discontinued their recycling program). So, if our van looks like it was full of garbage, it's because it was.
  • The weather was cold and snowing, but not so much that we felt uncomfortable traveling in it. We had been driving at relatively normals speeds the whole day.
Now, the basic details of what happened:
  • When we entered the eastbound on-ramp of I-80 (in the left lane), our van began fishtailing to the right, so that the right side of our van was acting as the "front" of our vehicle. No amount of gas, brakes, or wheel maneuvering pulled us out. We were completely at the mercy of Nature.
  • As we traveled down the road, our van continued twisting to the left. This was especially terrifying because looming over the left side of the road was a small hill, which shot out of the ground at a dangerously steep slope. Both Crystal and I knew that if we slammed into that hill with the side of our van, the result would be catastrophic.
  • After about 5 seconds of "Oh, no!" the front passenger tire slipped onto the recessed shoulder. We never directly impacted the hill. We rolled up it. At least I think we did.
I originally thought I knew every detail of exactly how our van flipped along the hill and landed on all 4 tires again (facing the opposite direction), but after returning to the tow lot on Monday to examine the damage, I'm at a complete loss. The only thing I'm certain of now is that we achieved some serious hang-time, ricocheting off of random locations on all 6 sides of our van. My wife thinks we must have rolled completely over at least 2 times.

This picture shows the first impact point of our van. As you can see, our van "folded" over the edge of the road's shoulder. Our kindergartener, Dawsen, was in the middle-right seat. Remarkably, his only injuries were a few scratches on the left side of his face from flying debris. I suspect that this initial impact sent most of our stuff flying out the window. I'm also very surprised that the other two windows are still there. Unfortunately, this is the only shot I have of the front of the van. You can't see it because of the snow, but the front underside of the van is draping down in pieces. I've posted a short post-interview with Dawsen below:

This picture bewilders me. We obviously made solid impact above my wife's head, thus shattering the windshield and denting the frame above her door, but I'm at a loss regarding her side of the van. Her side-view mirror is missing and there are dents and scratches on her door, yet her window remains intact. I was also grateful that the sliding door window was unbroken, since our one-year-old, Dax, was sitting there. He was traumatized enough from the accident as it was. When we first entered the tow lot on Monday, Dax started trembling. The closer we got to the van, the more anxious he became. We had to keep a 5-foot buffer between him and the van because, if we got any closer, he'd start whimpering and crying. He remembers. He knows.

This picture shows Dallen (our 2nd grader) and Dawsen (our kindergartener). Dallen was sitting in the back left corner of the van, and sustained the worst injury of us all. You can see the dents on the frame between the 2 shattered windows, proving that this was another point of impact. When we hit that corner of the van, the left side of Dallen's head banged the steel seat belt loop. He now has a 4-inch goose egg above his left ear. All things considered, though, we'll gladly take that injury. This accident could have ended up so much worse.

This picture has an entertaining story to go along with it (you have to look for humor, even in trauma, right?). On the day of the accident, when our van stopped rolling and the screaming settled down, our 2-year-old, Duncan, started rattling off a hysterical account of his experience. He kept repeating the phrase, "We fell down in a circle," along with very specific details about applesauce. It wasn't until we returned to the van on Monday that we finally pieced this together. Right next to Duncan, still wedged between the window and the seat belt, was this 6-pack of applesauce. I imagine that during the accident, the applesauce was dancing in front of Duncan before catching in the seat belt. I'm glad he had a focal point, rather than watching the rest of his family whip around in front of him. We've tried to get Duncan to retell his story about the applesauce again (as you'll see in the interview below), but it was a one-time thing. The chocolate comments have since come to light, too, from our oldest son. Dallen said that one of the EMT's gave him a mini bar of chocolate, which he broke into pieces to share  with his brothers.

This picture shows Dallen's and Duncan's view from the back seat (the middle seats were moved down when the paramedics pulled everyone out of the van). This picture disturbs me for two reasons.
  1. Crystal has always been terrified that, should she experience a plane crash, she would be in the very back and have to watch what happens to everybody else before the carnage reached her. On a less gruesome scale, I believe that my four boys will have to endure more emotional scarring than Crystal and I because of their view of the accident. That vision would burn in my mind for the rest of my life.
  2. I didn't realize how close I came to a spinal injury. That dented roof combed my hair.

This picture doesn't look like much, except a bunch of recyclable garbage, but an important story goes along with it. Without a doubt, the worst part of the accident happened right after we stopped rolling. I glanced at Crystal to make sure she was alright, and she returned my stare with wide eyes. We both took a quick, frantic breath, then turned around to see the damage behind us. I've never been so terrified of seeing blood, broken limbs, motionless bodies, or the worst, missing people. Gratefully, all four boys were still safely bucked in their seatbelts/car seats, and screaming bloody murder. I've never been so happy to hear my kids cry.

These two pictures seem rather uninteresting, but they give a good perspective on the chaos which ensued during the crash. The rear view mirror moved halfway back the van, and all those white grocery bags full of recyclables were stashed behind the back seat. And, once again, there is the package of applesauce. A few white blankets were left in the van, too, which the paramedics had used to try and cover the windows. Personally, I didn't notice the cold very much. I had more important things on my mind. Good thing we have medical professionals to watch out for us.

(Stay tuned for Part 2, an emotional and detailed account of my entire experience from the day of the accident until now. I've been working on it for the past week, but it has been to emotionally overwhelming to attempt in such a short span of time. For now, at least you have the details of the accident.)