TRAGEDY ON HIGHWAY 50
I first learned of the event when my daughter-in-law, Betty-Jo, said, “Have you heard what happened to Lauren on the way home?”
“What? What?” My heart started racing. Just the day before--the Tuesday after Christmas--my granddaughter, Lauren, and her two small children had flown to Sacramento, then driven up the mountain to their home in South Lake Tahoe.
Betty-Jo added quickly, “Lauren’s okay. She and the kids are fine.”
And then she told most of the story . . . and the rest came from Lauren.
Near midnight, as they headed into the Sierras, Lauren noticed strange lights in the distance, but off Highway 50, and down near the American River. She thought, That house down there has awfully bright lights.
Only seconds later, figures standing on the shoulder were flagging her down. Lauren pulled off and stopped. They were on a winding, two-lane mountain road, miles from anywhere. She noticed the car thermometer read 30 degrees.
As she got out, her children started protesting. Annalise, two, and Corbin, three, were strapped into their seats . . . and didn’t like her leaving.
A man—someone from one of the first cars on the scene--said urgently, “That’s a car down there. Upside down on the edge of the river—partly in the water. With a family inside. We went down, but couldn’t get them out. A girl was ejected.” His lower pant legs were wet. “Not sure what to do.” He seemed frozen, both literally and figuratively.
Lauren is a nurse. In this situation, someone had to take charge. “We have to get them out of that water and up here,” she said. She was thinking, Hypothermia. Her children were now screaming. But down near the river, someone else was screaming.
“Go down and bring that person up,” she ordered.
“How?” the man asked.
“Use this blanket. Put the girl on it, and haul her up. Like a sled.” She tossed him a blanket.
By now other cars had been flagged down. People milled around—most of them baffled. “Call 911,” she ordered. People tried, but their phones didn’t work.
Odd as it seemed, her phone did. She reached an emergency station, and at midnight, with GPS, gave the dispatcher an approximate location.
“You . . . Go down the hill and help,” she ordered a man who was standing by.
To others she shouted, “Help him pull the blanket.” And to still others, “Bring us more blankets. And spare jackets. We’ll need them.” And to still others, “We need more hands. We’ve got four accident victims down there.”
She shouted herself hoarse, demanding action, putting more men to work pulling the “sleds.”
The first to come up was the screamer, a thirteen-year-old girl with a probable broken shoulder. She’d been lying on the hillside and now couldn’t move her arm. “What’s your name?” Lauren asked.
“Here, Topaz, get in my car. The heater’s on.” Lauren began tugging off the girl’s damp clothes, then wrapping her in blankets and jackets. Meanwhile, both Annalise and Corbin were crying.
Next came a woman, twenty-three, with a bloody hand. To escape the car, the woman had punched out the window. In a halting voice she explained she’d found a pocket of breathable air. Lauren could see she was drifting in and out of consciousness. “Climb into my car, in back. What is your name?”
“Bailey.” But the victim was dazed, couldn’t remember where she was, or what day it was. Unlike the girl, she was wet and icy, clear through. Even her hair.
With strength she didn’t know she had, Lauren ripped the woman’s shirt in half, right where she sat, pulled down wet pants and underwear, and threw them in back. With donated jackets and blankets, she wrapped the woman up. But the patient seemed to be passing out. Determined to keep her awake, Lauren shouted her name over and over. “Bailey! Bailey!” A step that was vital to keeping her alive. Meanwhile, her own kids were screaming.
As her two victims slowly warmed in the car, others arrived, five men from CalTrans. Immediately grasping the emergency, one directed traffic and four went down to the half-submerged car. With the help of an off duty Sac P.D. officer, the five entered the freezing water, pushed as a group and managed to right the car. At last the men were able to free the driver, who was still alive.
From her position up on the road, Lauren saw a rescuer leaning over a small boy. She learned he was eleven. But the way the rescuer was acting, Lauren guessed the truth. The boy was already dead. A child, she thought, just a child. For her, the worst of those traumatic moments. The accident had just become a tragedy.
Now with fire department stretchers, the group of men skidded the boy and injured driver up to the road.
Finally, nearly two hours after she stopped, EMTs arrived, plus two ambulances. One ambulance took the injured man away, with intent to connect with a medical helicopter. By calling the hospital later, Lauren learned he’d suffered a broken back.
“Is he dead?” Corbin asked in his small voice.
“They don’t send a helicopter for dead people,” Lauren said.
Medics from the other ambulance scooped up the young girl and the woman who’d been sitting in Lauren’s car . . . the latter also wearing Lauren’s shoes. At the last moment, as an afterthought, Lauren retrieved her shoes from the ambulance.
At last, by now nearly two a.m., Lauren and her children continued up the road toward home. The next morning, at nine-thirty, Lauren was on the job in her own hospital. In a quiet, private ceremony, one of the hospital staffers gave her an award.
A day later, after Lauren told Rob and me the entire story over the phone, I said, “I’m so proud of you, Lauren—the way you took charge. And probably saved lives.” And I thought how, within the family, she was never the one who ordered other family members around.
In her unassuming way, Lauren answered, “That’s just what we do.”