The back of a Ford Taurus is wedged on the hood of my car. I can see little outside the window except its precariously balanced rear axle. Everything feels too tight, too close. I’m pinned in the driver’s seat. I can’t move my right foot, and if that Taurus shifts, it will come right through the windshield. Even if I could get move, something bulky is blocking the door.
Suddenly, I hear shouting. Firefighters are surrounding my car, one voice in particular yelling through the closed window.
“Ma’am, remain calm, this is the Burlington Fire Department. We’re going to be getting you out in a minute. Okay?”
He’s wearing a helmet and balaclava, bulky jacket and protective gloves. I see reflective orange markings on the jacket as he crouches to one knee. Then I lock on to his intense blue eyes and that voice, the one talking directly to me against a confusing backdrop of noise.
“I want you to listen to me, Lorraine,” he says. You’re going to be fine. I need you to answer some questions for me.”
“Can you move your legs?”
“My right foot is stuck,” I tell him.
“Okay, I want you to move your fingers for me.”
“My right arm is stuck,” I reply. “My shoulder is killing me.”
My rear view mirror is askew, and I can’t see anything but the car I’m wedged beneath and the blue eyes just outside my door. My foot is caught beneath the accelerator. I start wondering what I should do next. Before the panic amplifies, his voice returns.
“Is there anyone in the car with you?”
“No, I’m alone.”
“Don’t worry about the noise; we’re working on getting you out. I want you to just look at me. I don’t want you to move your neck. Can you undo your seat belt, Lorraine? Are you able to reach it?”
I can’t. For some reason this makes me feel guilty, that I can’t do something so small to help.
“That’s okay,” he says. “Don’t worry, we can do that.” He’s choosing every word to keep me calm while still eliciting information. The voice maintains a constant pace as questions and reassurances are directed at me, interspersed with information he is relaying to the others who I can hear, but not see.
“I’m going around the car now, Lorraine, and I’m going to come in from the back,” he says. “I want you to keep … Hey Lorraine, how are you doing?”
Suddenly, he is beside me, folding into the tight confines of the passenger seat. His bulky coat and helmet fill the small space. Those blue eyes are still locked on mine.
I feel the car shaking slightly as the others make preparations, their actions accompanied by shouted directions I can’t make out. I hang onto the voice beside me.
He removes the keys and rolls the driver’s window down with fluid motions, without interrupting his words. He pulls a clear tarp over the two of us, and I can sense another set of hands helping behind me. The clear cocoon further shrinks my world.
“There’s going to be glass flying,” he explains.
He feels along my legs and arms, gently freeing my foot and hand. He takes my pulse.
“Lorraine, any medical history?”
I tell him I am allergic to penicillin, unsure of what is relevant.
“I’m going to put this oxygen mask on to help you breathe, alright?” he asks as he puts it in place. It’s small and light; it blocks some of my vision, but I’m only looking at him, anyway.
“Your pulse is good,” he says.
This surprises me; my heart is pounding. I know there is something called a golden hour in the rescue business, rescuers believing the odds of survival are highest in that initial stage. First responders, like these, allot themselves 20 minutes of that precious time.
“Ready? Things are about to get loud,” he says. “Don’t be scared.”
In the next instant, I hear and feel the rear window being smashed. With that, it feels like an army has descended on the vehicle. I can hear people on the roof, and then a saw screams to life.
“We’re taking off the roof to get you out,” he says. The cadence of his voice never falters, even as the screeching of the metal drowns him out. They work quickly, and it sounds like the saw is just inches away from my head. The tarp keeps out falling debris, but not the bitter December cold and not the sound of tearing metal.
The saw stops abruptly. Rescuers wedge a back board behind me, firmly but gently. Several sets of hands weave straps around my legs and torso, and use tape to immobilize my head.
“We have you on a board, we’re going to lower you back, then get you out of here. Do you have any pain?”
That voice … it is the only tether I trust.
I say no. I feel only vulnerable.
“1,2,3 … lower.” I’m now staring up at the sky where the roof of the car once was. “Ready, 1,2,3 … and lift.” And with that, I’m pulled free, now staring at the 12 firefighters who made it happen.
I stare at the car I’ve just been freed from. It looks like a can opener has pulled it apart. My voice, medic Andrew Bourque, grins and asks if I’m okay. Exercise or not, I’m shaken.
It’s taken less than 20 minutes.
We’ve all seen the flashing lights at a highway crash scene, and wondered what’s going on behind the flashing lights and sirens at a crash scene; this is it. The Burlington Fire Department’s vehicle rescue team staged this event to not just show me what they do, but to let me experience it.
They gave me imaginary injuries, but everything else was real.
Unnerved as the adrenalin seeped away, I asked how long it had taken to get me out of the wreck. About 15 minutes, they say.
About 10 hours later, I passed four members of this team on the highway at a multi-vehicle collision. My heart clutched a little, sympathizing with the victims, while understanding how the firefighters would have been working to save a life.
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