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Jack Smith

Out of the night and into the canyon hurtled the pickup truck with tires screaming and headlights swerving

August 24, 1987|Jack Smith

Mount Washington Drive snakes up our hill in a series of S-curves that are irresistible to thrill-seeking kids in stolen cars. It runs above the canyon below our house, about 100 yards away, closes that distance with a deep curve around our property line, then makes a hairpin and climbs to the top of the hill.

Night after night we hear the scream of tires and the cries and shrieks of joy riders as some juvenile shows off at the wheel. Sooner or later, we have always known, one would lose control and go into the canyon, which is about 100 feet deep and very steep.

We had just got home the other night when I heard the familiar tire scream and saw headlights swerving. Then I heard a crash; wood splintering. The headlights vanished; hoarse cries arose in the dark.

"They went in," I told my wife.

"Should I call?" she said.

I didn't want to raise a false alarm. It might be just a carload of drunks who had crashed into the wooden rail and were celebrating their valor.

"I'm going to go down and see," she said, always the Good Samaritan. She put on flat shoes.

"I'll drive you down," I said. "It's safer. We can keep the car doors locked."

It is only about 500 feet from our house to the opposite side of the canyon. The canyon is undeveloped and thickly wooded with native shrubs, trees and poison oak. We own more than an acre of it.

Just opposite our house we saw a gap in the white wooden guard rail. The splintered breaks looked fresh. A car came up the hill and stopped. A man was driving; a woman sat beside him; two shadowy figures were in back. The man rolled down his window.

"Do you live around here?" he shouted. "There's been an accident! Can you phone?"

He had picked up two boys who had been walking down the road. They said they had been riding in a pickup truck that had gone over through the gap beside us. There were others down there who needed medical help.

We drove home and telephoned. While my wife was still on the phone, giving details, I drove back to the scene. Nobody was there. I heard no voices. I wondered if it was all an illusion, or a hoax. I drove half a mile farther down the hill, then turned and came back. Two young men, one with a flashlight, were standing by the ripped fence. One said they had climbed down a way and heard moans. It was too steep to go deeper.

"You definitely heard moans?" I asked.

"Definitely. There's somebody down there."

I drove back to our house. My wife was in the street directing a fire engine down the hill. It couldn't have been five minutes since she had called. A neighbor may have called sooner, but, anyway, the response had been fast.

We drove back down and parked, out of the way, behind the fire engine. A paramedic truck had come up the hill. Firefighters in bulky jackets with fluorescent stripes began going down the slope on lines. Half a dozen went down.

Minutes later I overheard the first message: "One male, one female, one broken leg."

We couldn't see the car for the brush.

A crowd of spectators had gathered along the fence. I recognized most of them as neighbors. One was the man who had picked up the two boys. He said he had driven them to the bottom of the hill; they had scrapes and bruises and he thought they would need medical attention; but they directed him to a certain corner and got out and walked away. It occurred to him that the car in the canyon had been stolen. He felt duped.

He said he and his wife were thinking of buying on Mount Washington. They had looked at a house that afternoon. "We just came back to see what Mount Washington was like at night," he said.

"Now you know," I told him.

"You people will have to get your cars out of here," a firefighter said. "We're going to bring a hook and ladder in."

I turned my car around and drove back to our house and was just getting out when I heard a siren. In a moment the hook-and-ladder truck roared up the hill. As it passed me I realized with dismay that it was going to go straight on up, instead of taking the road down. I waved and shouted, pointing to the lower road. The truck stopped, backed up, and turned downhill.

I felt important.

I heard more sirens. Three more trucks came up the hill. I pointed the way and they joined the other units above the canyon. There was by now a second paramedic truck and a chief. The ladder truck had raised a ladder from which a light shone down on the accident.

Two helicopters appeared, training their spotlights on the rescue party at the bottom of the canyon. By now the gallery had grown to more than 100, stretched out along the fence.

The fire department's response had been fantastic. But the rescue itself was taking time. A third helicopter, much larger than the others, chopped in and hovered over the rescue scene. Anyone might have been excused for thinking it was an extraterrestrial spaceship. Its enormous prop flattened the trees and brush. The firefighters' tin hats glowed under its spotlight.

It came frighteningly low.

(To be continued.)

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