Due to its nature, there are no pictures in the body of this post. Those will be supplied by your own imagination.
By: Paul Curran
Alan and I finished our late supper about 11 pm at the Irving Big Stop in Deer Lake Newfoundland. The truck stop restaurant was owned by a local family, and the food was excellent. We had both showered, and having slept for four hours, we were raring to go. I pulled out first, headed west, and Alan followed in his Freightliner with a temperature controlled trailer (reefer). We were both headed towards the ferry back to the mainland, loaded with frozen fish destined for American markets.
It was a warm, clear summer night, and I had the driver’s window halfway down. The driving was perfect and we had lots of time to get to the 6am ferry- about a three-hour drive. There was only one town – Corner Brook – of any size and a handful of tiny communities along the way. Hardly any speed changes and no controlled intersections – just a nice ride. Alan and I chatted back and forth on the CB as we drove. The last ferry would have arrived at PaB at 6 pm (at the time they ran twice a day) and the vehicles had long passed where we were. At night, there was very little traffic on these roads between towns. Even the police only came out here when called – they seldom patrolled.
About halfway to the ferry, we approached the turn-off to Stephenville – a decent sized town about ½ hour off the Trans-Canada Highway, where we were passing by en route to Port aux Basques. The junction was level to my right, but was in the middle of a construction zone. They were twinning the highway and had the overpass in place, but traffic both ways was running on one side of the new highway, as if it were a two-lane road. The other side, which would be the east-bound when done, was formed but still had a gravel surface. The whole construction zone was on a sweeping turn to my left. I could see the intersection where Hwy 490 went to the right towards Stephenville. I could not see the highway around the bend. I slowed to 80 kmph (50 mph), the construction zone speed.
As I approached the bend, I could see the lights of an oncoming vehicle reflecting off the concrete overpass and painting the road. I started around the bend, and the lights of a car (too low and narrow to be a truck) came into view. As it always is when meeting a vehicle in a turn at night, it was not immediately possible to determine where the car was positioned on the road. As the distance between us closed, I realized quickly that the car was partially on my side of the road and drifting further into my lane – as if going straight rather than staying in its lane. I braked hard and moved as far to the right as I could without leaving the shoulder. The lights of the car matched my movements. This is a common phenomenon at night when an oncoming driver is tired, confused, has poor visibility or is distracted. They drive into the headlights of the approaching vehicle. Almost always, they will realize their error as they get closer, and correct. This vehicle did not correct.
I had a short tinted bug deflector along the nose of the hood, and as I watched, the car headlights disappeared behind the deflector – in head-on position. At this point everything happened very fast – a fraction of a second – and yet it seemed as if time had slowed almost to a standstill. I can clearly remember what seemed like a long pause between the headlights disappearing and the horrendous crash that ensued. If we were both doing 80 kmph (50 mph) then we were approaching at a rate of 146 feet per second, so if I lost sight at 50 feet, it was less than 1/3 of a second before the crash.
I did not have my seat belt on (they were not required at the time and many truck drivers did not use them in case of an accident that involved fire or being submerged in a waterway) and my body pivoted around my arms holding the steering wheel, my head hitting the roof liner. I bounced in the seat and hit the ceiling a second time. My legs flew up under the dashboard, my shins striking the bottom edge. The sound of being inside a large crash is indescribable, as if every molecule around you is suddenly vibrating with noise. I can recall the view forward as being grey and granular, like a heavy fog. Although I had been stopping, it takes many seconds to stop a vehicle that large, and my foot was no longer on the brake. The truck was still moving, and I can remember waiting for a piece of debris to come through the windshield and cause serious injury. There was as sense of complete loss of control.
Eventually the truck slid to a stop, nose pointed down, and the noise faded away. I seemed to be intact, but so much adrenaline was flowing I could have had a serious injury and would not be aware. I tried the door but it was crumpled shut. The windshield was gone from its frame, and I scrambled out through the hole fearing a fire. The hood was also gone, and I stepped on top of the twisted motor and jumped down on the ground. At that point I realized the front end and both front wheels were also gone. I can recall seeing the crushed and leaking frame-mounted fuel tanks sitting directly on the ground. No fire, that was good. The tractor and trailer sat on the unfinished gravel road adjacent to the highway, the tractor at a 45 degree angle to the trailer – lucky that it hadn’t jackknifed and hit the trailer.
I half walked, half ran towards the remains of the car. I remember seeing Alan also running towards the wreckage. The car was crushed beyond recognition. The engine and front 10 feet of the car were in the back seat. There was nothing in between but a large block of steaming twisted metal, emitting snapping and popping sounds as it cooled and expanded from the impact. There was no chance that anyone was alive. Pieces of the car and truck were scattered over the roadway as if thrown there by some giant hand.
In the end, the police and emergency crews and wreckers came and began to organize the carnage as the sunrise turned the scene blood red. It all became very civilized from that point. All the impact marks were on my side of the road, Alan was a witness, the truck (or its remains) were examined and pronounced in good shape. I was cleared of any wrong-doing. Alan took my undamaged trailer down to the ferry and loaded it aboard for the company to pick up on the other side. I travelled with Alan back to where we met a friend who picked me up and took me home (only about 60 miles from the pick-up point). I heard later from the police that the car driver had likely had a seizure as he was an epileptic. He had been alone in the car, returning from a night job cleaning offices n another town.
Even though I was cleared, there still lingers the guilt at having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. That I will have to live with for the rest of my life.