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The Picture I Didn't Take

03/17/2014

We were coming home from a vacation trip in Florida, heading north on Interstate 75 when I saw a large white truck veer across two lanes of the southbound traffic.  I called out to Patsy, “Look at that truck!”  By the time she turned to look, the truck was beginning to nose dive into the down sloping median.  The back end rose up and we thought it was going to flip over, but it slammed back down, plowed to a stop, and instantly burst into huge flames. 
 
Shocked, we pulled over almost even with the truck which was roiling in flames in the grassy median.  I was about to jump out to help when Patsy told me to pull up some in case the truck exploded.  I pulled the RV ahead about a hundred yards, then ran back.  By this time all the traffic in the south bound lanes had stopped and quite a few of the cars and trucks in the north bound lanes.  There were dozens of people who had gotten out of their vehicles to see if they could help.  As I ran up to the scene I could see several men throwing rocks at the windshield of the flaming truck.  A couple of guys were spraying fire extinguishers into the flames.   But the fire was fed by diesel fuel from the truck’s ruptured gas tank and the extinguishers had no effect.  People were shouting for the driver to get out but there was no response.  I ran in close but the heat from the fire was too intense.  Anyone who got within about 20 feet was driven back.  I couldn’t believe how hot it was.  It was summer and we were all wearing light clothes with short sleeve shirts.  I could already feel the skin on my face and arms burning like a bad sunburn.  I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like inside the cab of the truck. 
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Women were crying, men shouting and darting in to try to get close.  But we were all certain we were going to have to watch this poor guy burn to death.  Just then we saw his head and one arm push out from the driver’s side window.  I don’t know if the window had been down when he crashed, or whether it broke out when the truck hit the median ditch. But we all had renewed hope that he might get out.  One man found a pipe of some kind, about 10 feet long and two or three inches in diameter.  He moved in to try to get close enough for the driver to grab hold of it.  But again, the heat was just too much.  He dropped the pipe and had to retreat.  That was when I saw the picture I didn’t take.  The driver had reached out with his hand toward the pipe before the rescuer had to drop it.  He wasn’t yelling for help or saying anything.  The expression on his face gave no reflection of the desperate situation.  It was almost passive.  I’ll never forget the image of him reaching out in that silent plea for help.  It was the most achingly poignant and heartbreaking scene I had ever witnessed.  A fleeting thought of taking my phone out and snapping a quick shot crossed my mind.  But I instantly dismissed it.  No matter how moving and how powerful that image was, it just didn’t seem right to be taking a picture of a man who might be dying before my eyes. 
 
The fire was still raging, and we still could not get close enough to pull him through the open window.  This was even worse than before.  Now we would be able to see him as he burned.  A few more seconds went by…they seemed like minutes.  For him it must have been an eternity.  But he finally pulled himself free and tumbled to the ground. Immediately a couple of guys ran into to try to pull him away from the flaming wreckage.  But still the heat was too much and they pulled back.  With everyone shouting encouragement, he managed to crawl three or four feet.  But he was still too close to the fire.  Then,  one of the men got several of us together and told us to go in relays.  Two guys ran in, each grabbing a wrist and pulled him a couple of feet further.  Then they ran back out.  Then one of the other guys and I ran in and pulled him a few more feet before we had to retreat.  Finally, the last two men were able to pull him to safety.
 
A couple of women who were nurses came up and knelt beside the driver and began to pour bottled water over him. They were talking to him, telling him they were nurses and that help was on the way.  All this time he had never uttered a word, never screamed, never moaned, never called out for help. That was one of the most unnerving things about the whole incident.  I backed away and finally felt it was ok to take a photo…not of the man who had nearly died, but of the truck still engulfed and roaring in flame. In another couple of minutes, paramedics and a fire truck arrived.  The fire was extinguished in short order while the paramedics began to take care of the driver.  Later, on the internet, I learned his name and that he was in serious condition with burns over 40% of his body. I was surprised he wasn’t critical. It was amazing that he wasn’t burned more.  I guess the cab of the truck must have given him some protection from the fire. But I do know that if it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of a bunch of ordinary people, he would surely have died that day.
 
Later I thought about the photo I could have made of the guy reaching out for help.  It certainly would have been a terrifically dramatic image, the kind that goes viral on the internet and wins awards for photo journalism.  But I’m glad I didn’t take it.  He deserved to not have his suffering be any more public than it already had been.  I know that we are enlightened and sometimes inspired by such depictions.  And photos from disasters, wars, and other tragedies are as legitimate and necessary to understanding history and the human condition as the written word.  But in this particular time, in this particular place, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. 
 
The photo that accompanies this account was taken with my iphone.  I was too shaken up to notice my finger covering part of the lens.  This was after the driver had been moved to safety and just before the fire department arrived to put out the flames.  It gives some perspective to the size and intensity of the fire.