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Ute's Story

Into the Fog

The day that changed my life.

I used to greet each day with an almost naive anticipation of what wonderful things it might bring. I experienced a lot of joy and laughter in my life and of course, periods of sadness and suffering, but overall, I always believed that I could handle everything that came my way, good or bad.

That belief was shattered one day. The most intense suffering I have ever experienced in my life started that 3rd day of September 1999. My husband Stan and I were on our way from London, Ontario, Canada to Detroit, Michigan for a business meeting. The sun was coming up and everything seemed fine. It was a beautiful, clear morning and we were traveling on Highway 401, Canada’s busiest multilane highway.

After stopping for gas we encountered an unusual type of fog. As Stan described it, “it was like driving into a cotton ball” but it was just a small band of it and then we were through, back to a crystal blue sky with the sun shining.

A little bit further down the road we encountered another band, this one looked like a huge wall.

As we entered it, Stan slammed on the brakes almost immediately and we found ourselves sideways on the highway, just missing a huge truck in front of us.

Then all hell broke loose as an 18-wheeler went flying over the trunk of our car. Quickly, vans and cars slammed into us and into each other. We watched as people, who had gotten out of their cars after their initial crash, were now running for their lives, being hit as more vehicles joined the pile up. The jolting from the cars behind were violent and the crashing sounds were loud and seemed to go on forever — with each jolt I felt this would be the one that would kill us.

It was horrifyingly violent, I had never experience this kind of violence before in my whole life… then came the eerie silence.

We started to look around and it was then that we realized that we were trapped with no way out. I looked out my side window and saw an arm crushed against my window. It belonged to a 14 year old girl who had been slammed against my small sports car by a van. She was pounding on the roof of my car with the fist of her other arm. “Get me out of here”. But suddenly she screamed “I’m on fire”.

Oh no, I thought, we are going to burn to death.

The 18-wheeler that had driven over and crushed our trunk was wedged against Stan’s side of the car. A van was on top of us. We would never have been found if the girl did not suddenly start screaming she was on fire. I froze. I reached for my cell phone to call my daughter Natalie and to tell her and my son Marc that I did not think we were going to survive. I even had a quick regret about my new car. Stan and I were staring at each other. His eyes were huge with fear. I’m sure mine were the same.

At that moment I looked up and a truck driver was standing on our hood. He had heard the little girl and he had brought a fire extinguisher to help her – and he found us. Stan yelled for him to break the windshield. Oh no, I thought, my new car. He bashed it in to free us—just in time. The little girl was not so lucky. She perished along with 7 other people, including her father and brother, who were trapped in their car just a few feet away from us.

We owe our lives to the little girl, who died and to the unidentified truck driver. We will never be able to express our gratitude to them for saving our lives

And no one, helpers and victims alike, will ever forget the haunting dying pleas of the little girl “I’m only 14”.

This was how it all started for Stan and me. Here we were, a middle-aged couple, pulled out of our car with a few cuts. All around us was carnage. Yet, by some miracle or fate, we were spared.

So why did I not feel ecstatic to be alive? Shouldn’t I have felt joy that we had been saved? However, that was not the case. That night when we returned home, neither Stan nor I wanted to go to bed. I think we were both afraid that if we fell asleep, we would die. That night, and for many others to come, we drank copious quantities of wine to numb our fear and we finally collapsed into bed.

The next morning Stan went off to get some milk for our coffee. He could not leave our driveway. He sat in the car crying.

When I read the newspapers the next day they told the bigger story of the accident. The National Post article of September 4th, 1999 cited the fog as one of the main causes. “It was a strange fog, extremely dense from the east, which is strange; usually it comes from the west.”[i]

“The pile up involved 87 vehicles, including up to a dozen tractor-trailers, and the line of wreckage stretched for about two kilometers along Highway 401. At its center, 15 cars and 5 tractor-trailers collided before being consumed in flames. Many of the victims, still trapped in their twisted vehicles, some with roofs sheared off, made desperate, dying pleas as their autos caught fire. This was the worst accident in Canadian history, killed 8, and injured 45.”

The days immediately after the accident I started wondering about the events of that fateful morning. What if we had taken Stan’s Jeep, which he had suggested that morning, instead of my Mercedes sports car? The 18-wheeler may not have catapulted over the trunk. It may have crushed the Jeep because it sat higher. What if we had had the hard top down, after all it was a beautiful warm morning and I loved having the the top down. But as we approached the car in the driveway I said to Stan “let’s have the top up this morning.” What if I had not left my handbag and passport at the office? Something I never do. We could not leave without my passport since we were on our way to Detroit and had to cross the border into the United States. When we got to the highway we realized we did not have enough gas in the car and had to stop to get some. These delays were atypical.

Would we have missed the fog if we had left earlier? My mind raced through all the possibilities as I tried to reconstruct the day. Would we have missed the fog if had not had all these delays? Things kept coming back every night.

The little girl’s screams. The sounds of the crashing trucks and cars. The feeling of slow motion on impact. The fires. The smoke. The tires blowing from the intense heat. The desperate attempts by helpers to move my car to free the girl. One of the helpers trying to lift the car until the flames scorched his own face. My complete inability to think – to move. Our scrambling to get out of the car through the small windshield. And the fog. It had blinded us, captured and destroyed all of us in some way.

These images would haunt me over and over again for years to come.

I later learned we had met three requisites of emotional trauma:

It is as unexpected as fog on a clear day.
It is something you cannot prepare for.
It is something that you can do nothing to prevent.

Like fog.