I like to travel and I always looked for opportunities to take road trips. Probably would have tried to be a foreign correspondent if I had to do it over again. So my editors knew I was always up for a drive.
(photo: from the Flickrstream of “bobistraveling” under a Creative Commons license)
Eleven p.m. or so. I was eating a mint chocolate chip ice cream sundae from Stewart’s. Sitting on my couch. Phone rings. It’s Ken Thurman. “Hey, man, it’s Ken. Want some O.T?”
A Greyhound bus had crashed, and there were probably some fatalities. I lived about 50 miles north of the paper, and the crash happened about 75 miles north of me, in Elizabethtown, in the Adirondacks. That meant I was the paper’s closest reporter to the scene.
“I’ll get my keys,” I said.
There was little traffic on this part of the Northway, which is the name of the Adirondacks section of superhighway that runs from New York City to the Canadian border. I drove fast through the mountains with my high beams on. At some point, a State Trooper blocking an exit ramp flagged me down. I told him who I was, and he escorted me about five miles down a closed bit of highway.
The scene was lit with powerful floodlights running on noisy generators. It was strange to see the bus in the median with its wheels in the air. There were suitcases strewn around. I remember bending down to read a scrap of paper next to a duffel bag. I can’t remember what it said now but no doubt I was hoping it would be a poignant bit of color I could add ot my reporting.
After a time a large crane hoisted the bus in the air and I saw a dead woman lying on the ground. She was wearing sweatpants, a t-shirt, and had no shoes on. It’s possible her shoes flew off as she was tossed out the bus window as it rolled. Just as likely, she had taken off her shoes before the crash and had curled up to sleep in her seat for the late-night trip to Montreal. I was on the phone with my editor and I was surprised to see the body. I said “Shit, goddammit, shit.” Hadn’t counted on that. For the only time that night, I felt a hint of the weight of tragedy. Some firefighters made a human wall in front of the woman while they lifted her onto a stretcher. I believe they did this to specifically block my personal view of her. I didn’t want to look anyway.
Later, around 1 a.m., I was interviewing some emergency responder while a paramedic rolled another body past me on a stretcher and loaded it into a hearse. This person was covered in a sheet.
I met up with some French-Canadian journalists who were lost in the mountains, and I offered to let them follow me to the hospital in Plattsburgh to talk to some of the survivors. We also checked on a small hospital in Elizabethtown where the surprised medical staff acted quietly and heroically when they suddenly had a mass casualty situation to help with.
We all continued on to Plattsburgh and found the rest of the survivors. Lots of confused looking people with cuts on their arms and faces, in hospital gowns. Some of them got up and lurched toward us when we identified ourselves as press. It must have been three in the morning and some of the survivors hadn’t yet called their families. The other reporters and I loaned them our cell phones.
I found a motel in Plattsburgh and slept for a few hours. I interviewed some more survivors over breakfast and then drove 200 miles back home.