BOOM! Thud! -- Were the deafening sounds that accompanied the jolt! "What was that??" I said as I gave my husband a startled look. Upon reflection of that moment later, we agreed that collectively we thought that perhaps we had broken our axle. But the thoughts and words were interrupted as a vehicle slammed into the driver side of our FJ40 LandCruiser; we were hit a second time...
As the same vehicle glanced off our side and began passing us, Rich did his best to keep our truck from drifting or rolling. I fought the fear that was trying to over take me, as I watched a small light colored car spinning out of control and directly into our path. Rich said "Hold on, this could get ugly!" He didn't know how right he was...
It was a rainy winter night in Humboldt County on the North Coast of California. Not a torrential downpour, mind you, but just a seemingly mild rain fluctuating between drizzle and constant. Having just left hubby's parents at their hotel, following a birthday dinner for our son, we were on our way back to the RV park where we were staying.
I don't recall what we were talking about, but I do recall the first hit as it was so hard my glasses flew off my face and hit the dashboard, and I grimaced with pain as the seat belt did it's job tightening around my waist and torso preventing me from mimicking the action of my eyeglasses. The second hit, side smack, was not as bad, but definitely jarring! The third however was mortifying... as I watched the car then cross our path directly in front of us.
I remember praying fervently as I saw no way that the driver could escape certain death! The car was small (Volkswagen Jetta) in comparison to our 4-wheel drive truck, which also had the added weight in the front with a a heavy duty bumper and housing which contained our winch. As we collided with the car Rich was able to steer enough to the left to hit more the rear of the vehicle than the front -- though still technically 't-bone' as we hit from the center back, on the passenger side.
I was further horrified as I saw our shovel and hi-lo jack go airborne upon impact with the car -- straight up -- and knowing that they could very easily come down through a windshield or roof of one of the vehicles and do dreadful damage. I continued to pray. I closed my eyes and then felt another thud to my right. And then we stopped. I looked and the little car had come to stop adjacent the passenger side of our truck facing the direction from which it had originally come.
My husband asked our son and I if we were both okay, which we affirmed, and then he immediately hurried to aid the driver of the car while I called 911 for emergency assistance. Astonishingly as my husband rounded the end of the car, of which the mangled body was still attached to the front right corner of our truck, the driver got out under his own power. My husband asked if he was okay and he said that he thought that he was. At that moment my husband heard horns and saw headlights heading right for our truck.
You see -- we were still in the slow lane on the freeway. As I was speaking with the 911 operator I looked behind us and became aware that there were many cars stopped along the side of the highway. When the operator asked how many vehicles I told her that I could only say two for sure, but there were many behind us and I had no idea if there were issues there.
As I turned forward, after reporting info to the 911 operator, I saw my husbands face aghast -- waving his hands -- shaking his head and yelling "Nooo!!!..." I told our son to stay in his seat belt and hold on, as we might be hit again. My brief horrifying thought at that moment was that if a vehicle hit us our truck would most likely run over my husband... I closed my eyes again in prayer and felt relief as despite the braking and squealing of tire noises, the vehicle sped around us with horn blaring.
My husband immediately hurried to the truck and moved it out of traffic, over to the side of the road -- taking part of the car with us. Once we were parked I helped our son to buckle into the front seat to allow my husband access to the inside back of our truck to get flares and reflectors to hopefully minimize our propensity for being hit again, as the first hit had taken out our taillights. Once I was assured that our son was okay, not seriously injured at any rate, I called hubby's parents at their hotel. I told them what had happened, where we were and asked if they would please come to pick up our son as it was not safe for him to remain there.
A short bit later, just after the arrival of emergency-responders, hubby's parents arrived but CHP instructed them to a safer spot for them to park to wait for us. After taking down my husbands personal information, since our vehicle was still operable, a CHP officer followed us to the next off-ramp where we could safely transfer our son to the care of his grandparents while we dealt with the aftermath of the accident.
It was at this point in time that the CHP officer who we were talking with got a radio call and informed us that he was switching places with another officer at the scene. Upon the arrival of the second officer she asked my husband if he had noticed if the driver of the other vehicle seemed to be under the influence of alcohol. Rich said that he did not have enough interaction with the other driver to evaluate that.
The days that followed were filled with much contact with doctors (for injuries sustained by all three of us), insurance agents, rental car offices and automotive repair shops. Reflecting on it now it is a bit of a blur, but I do recall that the pain was horrific for weeks and driving, for me, became a frightening experience for many years and panic attacks continue intermittently today.
While my husband was giving his information to the highway patrol officer, that night, he mentioned that we had just recently arrived in Humboldt for him to attend the University. The driver of the other car volunteered that he taught there. When my husband asked what department, the tone of his voice changed and he said, 'perhaps I shouldn't say.' My husband initially thought that was an odd remark, since it appeared at that moment that the accident was nothing more than that -- an accident! Over time, the question asked by the officer coupled with the response of the other driver, in being reluctant to give information, would make more sense.
But let's pause here and consider the question by the officer that night: "Did the other driver appear to be drunk or under the influence to you?" ~ So... What does an 'alcoholic' 'drunk' or more specifically a 'drunk driver' look like? Wouldn't he/she be readily identifiable? I mean think about it -- You've watched "COPS," right? Or perhaps similar shows that share videos from their 'dash-cams' -- drunks are usually staggering, unstable, sometimes funny to watch or perhaps belligerent. Often times not well kept -- from as mild as 'a-bit-disheveled' to a down-right 'dirty-mess!' That's how I recall the portrayals... thus I continue.
It took about a week to get the police report, as I remember, it was then that we would learn the name of the man who hit us. Since the man had said that he worked at Humboldt State University we immediately searched his name via the school's website. We were startled to discover that he was a Priest who taught in the Religious Studies Department.
And now... we learned too, that though we knew he had gone to jail that night, for DUI, we had no idea that his blood alcohol level was .15!! At that time in California (and currently I believe) legally drunk was/is .08 Thus .15 translates to nearly twice the legal limit. What?? No. NO. That can't be!! He was a nicely dressed guy, seemingly just a little stunned and perhaps disoriented from the accident. Added to the fact that he said he worked at the University?? ...
This won't compute! I was bewildered to be sure. And then I felt angry... and then saddened... How could a person of his stature, his level of education, intelligence and position do something so stupid??!! Seriously??? How could he not make a better choice and call a friend or call a cab?? Heck call a tow truck, they'll take you AND your car home!!
Over the next several months we went to court on this matter three times. Each time our case was continued. Each time an attorney appeared on the behalf of the 'accused' -- the man who hit us. Then a day or two prior to our fourth trip to court we received a call from the Humboldt County District Attorney's office telling us that we did not need to be in court. You see we were, at the time, about a six hour drive from Humboldt visiting family. The DA's office knew that we were out of town and yet we were going to make the trip to court; we wanted -- no NEEDED -- closure.
She assured us that the case was going to be continued (again) and that she would notify us when the next hearing would be as that would be the opportunity, perhaps, for us to speak and that would be followed by sentencing. She was wrong. She called us the day after the hearing and informed us that he had been sentenced. His Felony DUI charges had been punishable by a few days in jail, $10,000 fine (payable to Humboldt County) and three years probation.
To say we were disappointed doesn't even begin to cover it. Not because we wanted some horrific punishment but because 1) We were not there because we were told not to attend by the District Attorney's office -- we expect that their information to us should have been correct and in our best interest; 2) We don't believe that the punishment was a deterrent for future repeat behavior -- I do not believe that a man driving and conducting himself at that level with a .15 BAC is a casual drinker; 3) And then -- Not once over those months of court did he actually appear -- an attorney was assigned in his place; 4) And sadly -- Not once over those months or in the years since did he ever contact us to apologize. I would have expected that from a caring, considerate, moral person; and I doubly expect it from a clergyman.
Another aspect of this whole thing that often comes up in circumstances like this is that there are lawsuits. Yes, we could have sued over the damages, injury, negligence, etc. However we believed that would have only resulted in the insurance and/or the Diocese paying out (as we believe the Diocese paid for the attorney) and thus would not truly have had any lasting affect on the man actually responsible.
Last year we were in Humboldt County both for work and pleasure. During our stay we learned that the man who hit us had become the Pastor of a large Catholic Church in Eureka, where we were staying at the time. Many times I had the urge to call the church -- or just stop by -- and see if I could talk to this man who had touched our lives so deeply in such an abrupt way.
It may seem odd, but there were many reasons that I wanted to talk with him. As I mentioned earlier -- closure. To me it was important to tell him that I/we did not hold a grudge and that we're all human -- we all make mistakes. I wanted him to know that I had been praying for him and hopefully that he had learned from the experience and that at the very minimum if he chose to drink -- don't drive.
Also, through all of this I had never seen the man who hit us and after having spent so many years praying for him I believed that meeting him in person would also be healing to me. But it was not to be. I couldn't get the knot out of my stomach long enough to make the call, or just stop by the church.
The date of this accident to which I have been referring: February 19, 2007 -- So why am I writing this now? Praying for closure. We will head back to Humboldt for another visit later this year and I was certain that this time I could do it. I could make that phone call and have that meeting. But very early this morning I got a proverbial gut punch -- I found out that the man who hit us had been murdered.
Subsequent to that news, I had a conversation with a very dear friend who shared her understanding that it seemed now that he was gone there would not be closure and that fact would be difficult for me, and for us. Thus writing this post seemed the answer. Thank you for bearing with me through its length.
It's odd. Though I never met Reverend Eric Freed, I will undoubtedly remember his name, accompanied by his picture, in my mind forever (courtesy of the internet and national news.) I feel sad for him and for his family. I don't know the circumstances of the murder -- but does it matter? A man is dead and another in jail being charged with the crime. A community is saddened by the loss of a pastor and friend. A family is devastated over the loss of a brother and son. Through this tragedy that is so much more horrendous than the accident, that we all survived that rainy February night, somehow we'll find closure.
Rest In Peace, Reverend Eric Freed.
In writing this I hope perhaps it may help others to address their needs for closure on certain items in their lives in order to move forward. Feel free to post here if you'd like. We always appreciate your comments.
Until next time...