Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

February 3, 2014

Watching a tractor-trailer jackknife in slow motion is a lesson on life

— — About 10 years ago, I had responded to a two-vehicle wreck in the northbound lanes of I-77, about three-quarters of a mile north of the H. Edward Steele Tunnel. It was raining a cold rain. It was the kind of a nasty day that most people would rather avoid. State police, the Green Valley-Glenwood Volunteer Fire Department as well as paramedics with the Bluefield Rescue Squad were on the scene.

Someone who was injured in the wreck was being transported from the scene, and as the ambulance was accelerating to enter the right lane of the Interstate, a tractor-trailer that was traveling north in the right lane attempted to swerve into the left lane, which was already occupied by another tractor-trailer.

The truck driver who was driving in the right lane applied his brakes and his trailer started swinging in the direction of the apron where I was standing along with six or eight of the emergency responders. The wheels on the driver’s side of the trailer came off the road as the trailer appeared to tilt forward. As a former trucker, I knew what a jackknife situation looks like, but it seemed like I was watching this one in slow motion.

Not everyone who was standing on the apron on the road saw what I was seeing. It was happening so quickly that I simply accepted the fact that I was going to be dead. After accepting that fact, my next thought was about why I was out there in the first place. Robert Youther was standing right beside me. If I would have stayed in the office that afternoon, I could have simply called him later in the evening and got the details of the wreck. We would have published a newspaper with or without my report anyway so I didn’t need to be there. For some reason, it wasn’t my time to die.

As if by some miracle, the truck in the left lane passed, giving the trucker in the right lane an opportunity to occupy the left lane and accelerate out of the jackknife. The trailer slammed back on all eight wheels and snapped back in position behind the truck which did not appear to slow down one bit. The noise of the trailer wheels slamming back down on the pavement caught the attention of some of the other emergency responders who looked around. I asked Youther if he saw what I saw, and he simply responded: “That was close.”

I carry that memory with me every time I respond to a report of a crash on the interstate, on U.S. Route 19/460  and every other place I go to. Sometimes I get so anxious that I’m almost afraid to get out of the car. One time within the last year, a relentless line of high-speed traffic was traveling so fast in the northbound I-77 lanes, that I froze on the apron. Nelson Short, chief of the East River Volunteer Fire Department, bailed me out by saying that he was about ready to get traffic stopped to get a ambulance out and I could cross safely then.

Our new publisher, Randy Mooney, got us all safety vests as one of the first things he did when he arrived. Now that I have one, I’ve been surprised by how many times I put it on. I’ve been around here long enough going to fires, wrecks, crime scenes and more that a lot of the emergency responders know who I am, but that vest isn’t for them to know me. It’s for passing drivers to see another emergency responder and to slow down. Sadly, it doesn’t always work.

This was what I was thinking about the first time that I talked to Lauren Fox, the sister of the late Trooper Andrew Fox, a Virginia state trooper who was run over and killed on Oct. 5, 2012, as he was directing traffic as it was leaving the Virginia State Fair. The Virginia General Assembly is currently considering a bill that Lauren calls, “Andrew’s Law,” S.B. 293, that would increase the penalty for drivers who run over and kill police, emergency responders or state highway workers who are on the job.

No law would have saved my life the day that the tractor-trailer jackknifed just a few feet from where I was standing, but laws that increase penalties for people who don’t slow down in the presence of emergency personnel or highway workers just doing their jobs may give them pause to think that slowing down just a little may save someone’s life.

I didn’t know Trooper Fox, but I probably saw him around Tazewell when he was growing up. I feel sure that he would have been the kind of a guy who would get traffic to slow down a little so an old newsman like me could cross the road in order to do his job. I think the Virginia General Assembly should step up and do something to help his family and all the other families who lose loved ones while they’re on the job, serving the public.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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