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Jack Smith

By land and by air, rescue teams perform feats of derring-do to save accident victims

August 25, 1987|Jack Smith

Shortly after a pickup truck crashed into the canyon behind our house the other night, five fire trucks, two paramedic ambulances and two small helicopters and a large one arrived. The large helicoper hovered 150 feet over the scene.

We watched breathlessly as a man in a helmet and an orange jump suit lowered himself from the chopper on a line, swinging this way and that as the pilot struggled to set him down on target. Heavily jacketed arms reached up finally and brought him in.

A minute later the chopper lowered a stretcher. It twisted and shone silver in the powerful spotlight. As soon as it was down the chopper veered away and left the scene.

By then the gallery of gawkers had grown to 150. A firefighter asked us all to move farther up the hill, away from the clutter. "That helicopter is coming back," he said, "and this is just about where it will be coming in."

I asked him why the chopper had left. He said it made too much wind for the men to work. It would come back when the victim was strapped to the stretcher. He said hovering over a canyon was the most dangerous kind of mission for a helicopter, because of the treacherous drafts.

Meanwhile, four or five firefighters began struggling back up the incline with one of the victims lashed to a stretcher. It was an arduous ascent. Stumbling, grappling, clawing at their lines, they reached the top and loaded the victim into an ambulance.

I asked the firefighter who had addressed us whether the victims were a male and a female, as the first report had indicated.

"It's two boys," he said. The one they had just raised had been "stabilized." The other had been "deteriorating" but he was now stable. The big helicopter was coming back to pick up the second victim and take him directly to County Hospital.

It occurred to my wife that we might be able to see better from the platform in our own backyard. I had built a terrace to extend the usable part of our yard, just before it drops off steeply into the canyon. The platform stands above the canyon like a viewing station over Niagara Falls. We walked back to the house and down to the platform and from there we could see the accident scene, directly below us.

A blue pickup truck sat right side up, its top crushed. Several men worked over the remaining victim, lashing him to the stretcher. We heard him scream. The helicopter appeared again and lowered a line to which the stretcher was attached. We watched, spellbound, as the stretcher was raised to the chopper, remaining horizontal, but twisting in the spotlight. Two men in yellow jump suits lowered themselves outside the chopper's door to take the stretcher in, and the chopper clattered away.

"What kind of car is that?" my wife asked. She probably had the wrong contact lenses in.

"Its a blue pickup," I said, pointing out the grooves and ridges in the bed. "See, the top is crushed. There's the little hood out in front."

She whimpered. Instantly I realized why. That very afternoon we had signed over our blue Toyota pickup to our son as a car for our 17-year-old grandson to drive, now that he had his license.

"It couldn't be him," I said. "What would he be doing over here with a car full of people?"

But it could. He knew that road. He just might be inclined to show off his truck to some friends.

I went back down to the scene and walked up to a man who seemed to be in charge. I asked him what kind of truck it was.

"A Toyota," he said.

I asked if they had identified the victims. I told him why I wanted to know. He was extremely helpful. He took me to a paramedic who had seen both victims. Both were stable. He didn't know their last names. One was "Rick" and one was "Joey." A policeman told me the truck was stolen.

I was relieved; but it occurred to me that other relatives would be stricken by the news.

The policeman asked me what I knew about the accident. I told him we had heard it and called in. He said he understood there were two other riders who walked away.

I told him about the man who had picked up two boys at the scene and driven them down the hill and innocently let them off at a corner.

"Do you know the man's name?" he asked.

Feeling useless, I told him, no, I hadn't asked.

"Then he's just another phantom," the policeman said.

The fire trucks began pulling out and suddenly the scene was deserted. Just a dark canyon and a broken place in the fence.

How ironic it was, I thought, that all this human energy, courage and specialized equipment should be expended in saving the lives of two youths whom none of the rescue team knew, and who evidently had been driving recklessly in a stolen vehicle, when I had seen thousands of young men killed wantonly on a battlefield in World War II.

In the morning we went down to the platform and looked down into the canyon. The blue pickup was still there--an ugly piece of pop art on our property--but it was removed that day.

The city had done a heroic job.

Sometimes real life is better than television.

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