Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Closest I Came to Dying . . .

. . . during two weeks away from home, at a spring training deployment where I made 85 skydives and logged over an hour and seventeen minutes of freefall time, was on I-25 in New Mexico on the way back home.

This narrative is overdue, in part because I promised to write it and have it properly certified as an affidavit and then mail it to the New Mexico State Police, whose praises I can’t sing loudly enough.

One brief piece of back-story first: The trip home from a remote airfield in Arizona took a couple hours longer than originally planned because just after crossing the Arizona/New Mexico border on I-40, I apparently shredded 5th gear. I drive a Jeep Wrangler with a soft top (a remnant of my southern California days when I could put down the top in April and leave it down until October because some songs are true, at least part of the year). I wear earplugs on long trips because the road noise rivals the twin turbines of my favorite jump platform. Even through the earplugs I noticed a strange overtone developing for about five minutes before the RPMs suddenly redlined and the power dropped to nothing just as I was passing a camper. I signaled and coasted to the shoulder in the middle of nowhere, thinking, as I was still about two hours west of Albuquerque, that I probably wasn’t going to be seeing the family until the first part of the next week. A quick trip around and under the vehicle didn’t reveal anything missing, so I got back in, put it in first gear and everything seemed okay. Second was okay. Third and fourth seemed fine. Then I tried fifth—one big gaping quadrant newly assigned to neutral. It being Saturday, I expected that if I stopped in Grants or Albuquerque I would be there for a couple of days at best, so I decided to try getting home at a somewhat lesser speed and higher RPM and expected some really lousy gas mileage.

So, one more unnecessary but surprising detail of back-story, then back to my closest call: as it turns out, aerodynamics (or the lack thereof) are a greater factor than RPMs in gas mileage with Jeep Wranglers. As a skydiver, I understand very well the concept of terminal velocity. If you rolled a Wrangler out the back end of a C-130 (Skydive Arizona may have tried this by now) I’m convinced gravity would meet its match at around 80 miles per hour. It turns out that my gas mileage went from around 13-14 mpg at 75 mph in 5th gear, to 19-20 mpg at 60-65 mph in 4th gear. That’s about the same rpm range. I suspect that on a graph of wind resistance versus mph, the line transitions from sloped to near vertical as you pass 70 mph. Interesting. At least if you own a 4-cylinder Wrangler.

I tell you all of that in order to tell you this. Being an aviator, I’m pretty cognizant of what’s at my six most of the time anyway, but for the second half of this trip, now firmly ensconced in the slower 50% of traffic on the interstate rather than the faster 50%, I was hyper-aware of traffic approaching from the rear. This fact, together with the long sight distances on the plateau south of Raton, New Mexico, explains why I had plenty of time to wonder whether I was about to die or, at a minimum, take another of the E-ticket rides that seem to be a hallmark of my life.

I was something like 10 miles south of the Shell station at Highway 58 and I-25, near Springer, NM, when I noticed a small, silver car gaining fast from behind. The overtake though, which had to be at least 30 mph (meaning this guy was doing every bit of 95 and probably better than 100 mph) wasn’t nearly as riveting as his position in the road, or rather, partly in the road and partly on the shoulder. That is, he was straddling the white line on the right side, actually more off than on the road—so much so, even, that I actually thought he was going to pass me on the shoulder. That would have been a little odd, as there were no other cars even in sight besides the two of us. There was a nice smooth passing lane wide open to my left, and I was pretty sure that I had the pre-eminent claim to the lane I was in, having been there first, and being, at that point, most decidedly, “slower traffic,” even at a good solid 65 mph. With less than a hundred feet to go, and with the driver now visible and leaned into the center of the car (in that attitude that some drivers with attitude assume), I pondered moving to the left lane to clear a path, but detecting a slight veer in that direction from the vehicle at my six, instead, I just braced for impact.

If impact had come, a good 30+ mph tap on the left rear bumper ring, I don’t think all the counter-steering in the world would have prevented a fully operational test of the roll bar on the Wrangler. If I had swerved an inch, or even let off the gas, I think I’d be telling a different story. But impact didn’t come. The silver bullet came zinging by my left side, swerving so hard himself that the trajectory carried him all the way to the center median shoulder on the left side before he corrected to the right, all the way back across both lanes to his position centering the solid white line on the right shoulder as he disappeared into the distance, again half on the highway and half on the shoulder, receding now as rapidly as he approached.

Now, in my day, I’ve called in at least four obviously drunk drivers to 911 in various states and cities. Only once has it resulted in an arrest, and that story I’ll tell in another entry. Skeptical as I was of its efficacy, my civic duty here seemed pretty clear. If I called, at least when the next call about the inevitable crash came into the system, the operator wouldn’t be surprised. Cell reception was poor where I was, but I got a 911 operator on the line, gave her my location, and let her know that a silver missile with a malfunctioning guidance system was headed for Raton. And that was about all I could do. I’m sure the log contains my position in terms of mile markers, but as for a make of vehicle or license tag, the best I could do was, “Some kind of small car like a Kia or Neon or something like that, silver, as much off the road as on, and traveling at around 100 mph or better, northbound on I-25. He barely missed me.”

As 911 calls go, that’s the sketchiest information I’ve ever given them. In at least two previous instances I’ve given them everything but the suspect’s social security number and fingerprints and even given them a running location for five or ten minutes, all to no avail, so I didn't expect much to come of this. Less than ten minutes after I made the call, I coasted into my fuel stop, just hoping the vehicle would be there. The few of you who read this blog know me well enough to know that I’d have made an impromptu breath analysis on the spot, and if my suspicions were confirmed, taken his keys and locked him in his own trunk until the cavalry could arrive. (I promise to tell the story of the other DWI arrest I “facilitated” in another blog entry some other day.) No such luck.

Ten minutes later, I was on the road again. It was dusk as I rolled by Raton, NM, and started up the pass. As I’d come into town, I received a voice mail on the cell from the New Mexico State Police. The message was that they hadn’t found the silver missile yet, and they wondered if I still had the driver in sight. I called back with the intention of telling them that I didn’t have him in sight for more than a minute—he was moving that fast. When I called back, I identified myself and the young woman who answered asked if I could hold. “Sure.” And I was on hold as I left Raton in the rear view and began the climb up the mountain. I had only rounded a curve or two when I saw the thing that made my day. A New Mexico cruiser was parked on the right shoulder, lights flashing. In front of the cruiser was the silver missile. On the roof of the silver missile, for the world to see, was what looked like a fifth of Smirnoff or something like it. SWEET!!

Still on hold, I lost the cell signal as I entered the pass, but as I came into Trinidad on the Colorado side, I called again. “You got him!” “Yes sir! He’s under arrest for DWI. Thank you so very much for calling.”

In the 85 jumps during the previous two weeks, I was never closer than 10 seconds from impact (about 1800 ft) before getting a canopy over my head. And I jump with an Automated Activation Device (AAD) that would have fired my reserve canopy if I had ever failed to deploy the main before half the remaining distance had closed. I tell my friends and family that they are nearly always at more risk driving to the grocery store than I am jumping out of airplanes. The distance by which this guy missed me was inches, and fewer than 12 of them I’m sure. Change the timing by tenths of a second—the start of his swerve, a twitch or release of the throttle on my part—and someone would have been in a world of hurt or dead. It wasn’t my day to go, nor his.

The arresting officer called the next day to thank me for making the call and to let me know that they might need to subpoena me if the driver challenged their probable cause for stopping him. I promised them I’d get with our JAG and draw up an affidavit just in case, but I also let them know I’d be happy to make the trip to Raton if necessary. I’ve spent four years in two different volunteer fire departments responding to crashes where uninjured drunks watched from the back seat of a police cruiser while we used the jaws of life to cut their victims from what was left of the other car. I’m glad it wasn’t me this time. I pray it’s never anyone I know.

Bottom line: if you see a drunk driver, make the call. Sometimes it works. The road up until the point they stopped this guy was as straight as it gets—not so his ground track. I have a hard time imagining him making it through the pass in one piece. A single-car crash is about the best he could have hoped for. That trooper probably saved the driver’s life, and maybe someone else’s.

And, hey, that whole thing with setting the bottle on top of the car is way cool. The officer (whose name I’m leaving out on purpose) said it was so that the video cameras in their cruisers could record it as evidence. But it has another benefit as well: every car that passed them by the side of the road had no doubt what that was all about. If every DWI arrest included that as procedure, maybe one or two more drivers would think twice about getting behind the wheel with a bottle as a copilot. Just a thought.

Don’t drink and drive. If you need a rush, go skydiving. It’s far safer, and there’s no hangover the next day.

Blue skies, Doc.