This is the story of how my wife Anna and I walked away unharmed from a car crash that easily could have killed us.
Here’s how I experienced it:
On the first of this month, February 2019, we headed south from Chicago to visit family near St. Louis. About four hours into the trip, we were somewhere in the vicinity of Springfield. I had the car on cruise control going about 70 mph (the speed limit) in the left lane on I-55, having recently passed a semi, when a loud chunk-chunk-chunk sounded from the rear right of the vehicle.
I had enough time to say, “What the heck?” and wonder if the bumper cover had popped off and was dragging on the road, when the car started swerving. I tried to correct, without effect. We spun out across the right lane. Anna started screaming. I had a vision of the semi we’d passed slamming into us. The car sped rearwards down the highway, then onto gravel and grass. I hit the brakes. We plowed through brush, branches whipping by on either side. The driver-side window burst in, and the car finally came to a halt. Anna stopped screaming.
Shaking, we looked around and boggled at what had just happened, at the fact that we were still alive and unharmed. No airbags had gone off, but the rear windshield had completely shattered. I dialed 911. All I could see through the front windshield and the surrounding brush was a sign for food and amenities at a nearby northbound exit on the far side of the highway, so that’s what I told the emergency operator.
We decided to wait in the car for the police to arrive. Completely surrounded by brush and branches, we couldn’t open our doors. I considered climbing out my busted driver-side window, but then we’d just be waiting out in the cold. I attempted to brush some of the glass off of my clothes. When emergency services arrived, firefighters had to use chainsaws to cut the branches away from around the car so we could get out. The tow truck dragged the car out with a chain. That’s when we finally saw the rear right tire, completely flat with tread trailing away from it in tatters.
Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about what actually happened, and it involves a string of bad luck followed by a string of ridiculously good luck:
Two days before we left, Chicago had record-breaking sub-zero temperatures. The day before we left wasn’t much better. During that time, our car, and its right rear tire, were sitting out in the extreme cold. Just a week earlier, we’d taken the car for an oil change, and they’d encouraged us to change out our tires as well. The tires weren’t particularly old, and we know these oil change places always try to upsell, so we told them thanks-but-no-thanks and said we’d keep an eye on the tires. If we’d actually opted to replace them, perhaps things wouldn’t have gone down like they did.
Driving south in warmer weather, into warmer climes, for four hours, some flaw in the rear right tire must have been exposed to more change in pressure than it could handle. It came apart, while we were cruising at 70 down the interstate.
That was the bad luck. This is where the unbelievably good luck begins.
First, I had recently passed a semi, but hadn’t yet moved back into the right lane. If we’d been next to the semi, or just barely ahead of it, the resulting collision when the car went out of control likely would have killed us. If we’d been in the right lane, we would have spun out into the ditch and flipped over, going off the road sideways and perpendicular to the highway instead of backwards and nearly parallel, which would also could have been deadly.
Second, I didn’t hit the brakes right away, so we didn’t slow or stop in the right lane with a semi coming at us head-on. I don’t know if this was because I somehow retained the wherewithal not to brake until we were off the road, or if my feet just took that long to catch up with my brain. But I do know that if we’d stopped on the highway and not off of it we’d probably be dead.
There are doubtless other ways things could have gone wrong. If we’d spun off left into the median railing, or if we’d gone off the road facing forward instead of backwards, or if there’d been something much more solid to run into than the brush that cushioned us.
I could also go on about all the other challenges that piled up. How the police took us to the Springfield airport to rent a car, but we discovered that airport rental locations can’t process insurance claims. How the taxi to the nearest rental place never arrived, and they had to stay open late for us to get us the last car in the lot, a massive tank of a vehicle nothing like what we usually drove. How the smaller rental car we eventually swapped it out for had no lumbar support and did such a number on my back I missed a day of work lying in bed with a hot pack. How much of a pain it was to find and purchase a replacement for our totaled car on such short notice. But none of those things were going to kill us.
As a Humanist, I don’t believe in any deities, or miracles. I don’t believe there’s anyone watching out for me (and part of me thinks that, if there were, why were they willing and able to stop the car from flipping or being crushed by a semi, but not willing or not able to stop the tire from disintegrating while we were speeding down the interstate?).
I have, on occasion, wondered if some extremely ineffectual or incompetent deity is out to kill me. Aside from the car crash, most notably was the time I was standing in line at the grocery store and heard a loud crash, followed by something hitting me in the neck. In reaction, I put my hand up and caught a small object, clear and cold in my palm, as it fell down to my chest. At first I thought it was ice, until I realized that a case of soda water had fallen off a shopping cart in the next line over, and a knife-shaped shard of glass had shot straight at my throat. Didn’t even break the skin, but still a spooky experience.
In the aftermath of the car accident, starting about as soon as we came to a halt in the brush, I’ve felt envy towards my theist friends, who have something identifiable to be grateful towards. It’s not very satisfying to feel grateful towards the random chaos of the universe. Nevertheless, it’s what I have, and I continue to be grateful all the same.