We call this helping.
In Germany, it’s 112. France is 15.
Hong Kong and Singapore are 999.
It’s the sound that draws us here,
huddled on the edge of another’s disaster, clutching our loved ones and
pretending, in the brief moments between flashes of red and blue, that we feel
empathy. That song is the problem. That desperate wailing. It’s not a
coincidence that we call those noise-making horns on police cars “sirens.”
This is the problem of humanity; that we’re all far too interested in
obliteration. If calamity forces us out of complacency, it suddenly explains a
fascination with Nascar wrecks that I’ve never quite understood. Craig is
standing beside me, wiping a tear from his eye. He watches Nascar every weekend,
and has a picture of the flaming Twin Towers on the wall near his bed. He said
it helps him remember. Because if Craig doesn’t watch things die, he tends to
get the impression that they just fade away.
I think that’s why he answers the
phone and drives the van. In Italy it’s 118. New Zealand is 111.
You probably know it as 911.
Craig and I aren’t police officers or
paramedics. We’re volunteers signed on to the payroll. We’re the guys who show
up after the hot stickiness of panic has faded away and the jaws of life have
been returned to their place in the ambulance.
We’re the clean-up crew. I know this
seems morbid, and I wouldn’t have ever chosen it as a profession had it not sort
of absorbed me. Craig is still crying, and I can see the outline of his face in
the flickering orange light of a dying fire. He’s supposed to look strong and in
control, bravely wearing that yellow plastic uniform, boldly exploring the
remaining wreckage of tonight’s tragedy with his flashlight. There’s a flipped
car in the middle of the road, right up against a forest, and the trees still
sway in the light breeze, callously ignoring this night’s particular tragedy. A
growing circle of concerned bystanders has been crowding around, craning their
necks over each other to maybe catch a glimpse of something mortal. Those sirens
call them in, and they never really can leave.
The truth is, there’s nothing
romantic about a car wreck. An average-sized car typically weighs about 3000
pounds. Take two of those, moving at 75 miles per hour, slam them into each
other, and you’re left with a twisted molten mess of steel and rubber to pull at
least two bodies out of. Cars contain somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000
parts. Ironically, most of them are made of aluminum, which is the same thing
our uniforms are coated with to protect us from the flames.
It doesn’t matter how many movies you
watch or how many pop-rock music videos use a car wreck as a stereotypical
emotion-inducer, a piece of you dies the first time you see something like this.
I don’t think these curious onlookers realize that until they get their first
glimpse of a severed arm or an indecipherable mass of clothing and flesh – Is
that a person? I hear them ask that a lot.
Yes, it’s a person.
And this person does not look like
they did an hour ago. They are no longer breathing. They look pale and scared
and lonely, and they’re laying in ways people aren’t supposed to lay. Dead
people are not pretty. They are dead. Craig is putting this person in a body
I turn around to where a woman is
standing behind me, leaning forward over the line of yellow caution tape. White
hair and bundled in a blanket, the fatigue in her face tells me she’s been
watching for a long time now.
“Who were these people, and what
“I don’t know who they are.” And
that’s the truth. “As for what happened – It would seem that they ran their cars
into each other.”
You’d be surprised how often we’re
asked this question. Something doesn’t seem to click with people, despite how
obvious it seems to me. The human mind is subconsciously capable of accepting
that these scenes come out of nowhere and disappear into the night once the
bystanders move on. Nobody considers where these people were going, what they
were going there for, who they were going to meet. In another hour or so,
friends will start calling cell phones that melted or burned long ago. If I knew
who these people were, I couldn’t tell this lady. It would ruin her.
She nods, then gives a tired smile,
then turns to push her way through the mumbling crowd, and I go to work.
Craig has done most of the clean-up. I bend over to start picking up glass from
the roadway, collecting the jagged little shards of red-stained windshields into
a small plastic bag, and Craig hoses down the pavement. I’m happy to have
something else to look at, even if it’s the asphalt.
This time, something is wrong. I know
it, and I can tell Craig does, too, because he looks around nervously from time
to time before going back to work. It takes me a minute before I realize what it
is, and when it hits me I’m so awe-struck that I simply stare. The bag of
shattered window pieces slips from my hand, hitting the ground and spreading out
In the dull collage of lights (red, blue, and orange) cast against the tree-line alongside the road, I see a pair of
tiny eyes looking out from the dense foliage. I pause for only a second before
sprinting around the wreckage, moving towards the darkness of the trees. The
Behind me, I can hear Craig trying to
talk to me. He’s only twenty feet away, and I can’t hear him, I’m so intent on
what’s in front of me. It’s surprising how dark it feels just inside the
boundaries of the forest. That’s what I’m thinking when I see her.
She’s a little girl, not more than
five years old, and she’s crouching down now, her hands over her ears, facing
away from me. She’s crying. As I get closer to her I can tell she’s hurt,
bruised already, blood drying in places on the little yellow jumpsuit she’s
wearing. The chances of surviving a wreck like this are astronomically low. It’s
five times less likely when thrown from the car. Add her age and size to that,
and I’m left with what I can only consider a miracle.
Only, it’s hard to call things like
this a miracle, because I can’t get it out of my head that she’s just watched us
put her family into body bags and seen her formerly safe car now in flames,
utterly demolished. I kneel down beside her, shining a flashlight on her, and my
first instinct is to straighten out her long blonde hair, which is matted
against her face, wet with tears. She looks up at me and I tell her it’s going
to be alright, that she’s safe now, that everything’s OK, and I give her a
Now it’s me that’s drawn in by the
plight of another, because while I’m checking to make sure she’s got no major
lacerations or bone breaks, I’m also wondering who is going to take care of her,
how she’s going to get to school, and whether or not she’s scared right now.
This is not the voyeuristic trance brought on by wailing sirens, though. This is
from some place deeper. I want to say holy. Because in this moment, I love this
girl with all my heart.
Before, when I said a piece of you dies the first time you see something like
this, I was lying. The truth is that a piece of you dies every time. That’s part
of how this all fits together, I’ve decided. We’re born, and we grow, hoping to
feel something along the way, and sometimes new things are born within us, and
other times something within us passes away. It’s how we change. As I lead
this little girl by the hand out of the woods, watching her sobbing face in the
swirling ambulance lights, I’m hoping that the things that die within her
tonight give way to something beautiful. I believe that they will.
This is what we call helping. It’s
cleaning up the mess a girl’s dead mother has left behind, then taking her to a
hospital, where they’ll poke her and stitch her up, and offer her lollipops and
ice cream instead of affection. This is the show the crowds form to see, so
mothers can whisper their commentary on it over a bottled water while they’re
waiting to pick up their kids from school. The middle school kids will all claim
to have been there for it. The high school kids will all claim that they don’t
care about it.
In the middle of all this discussion, a little girl will be waiting for someone
to pick her up and hold her, to nurture her back to a place where she doesn’t
have to be afraid or alone anymore. Where the things that die within her will,
maybe, give way to something beautiful again.
Even so, I’m not depressed, because
while this girl is confused and shocked, she remains untainted. I can see this
in her eyes; the innocence of unquenchable hope. A new ambulance has arrived for
her, and she’s sitting up on a hospital bed in the back of it, looking at me.
She’s not crying anymore, though her eyes are still wet. As the doors shut on
her, she waves shyly.
She has no clue how bad things are
going to get for her, but she will adapt and change and blossom, and out of this
wreckage she will become something new, something resplendent.
And what I’m thinking is that maybe
that’s what it means to be alive.