Tell us about a time when you were left on your own, to fend for yourself in an overwhelming situation — on the job, at home, at school. What was the outcome?
Once upon a time, I drove a group of adults with developmental disabilities to Harrisburg to participate in a lobby day event. I drove my personal vehicle (a minivan) with 4 clients and a coworker. Another coworker drove our program’s car with 3 clients. We left Pittsburgh very early and had a successful event – it was the first time our clients had an opportunity to participate in this type of activity and they were really stepping up during the meetings and the rally.
Several hours later (this was in early June), we were driving home on the Turnpike when the other car sped up and dashed ahead of us. We had cell phones but strict rules about using them while driving (obviously) so we had to wait until the driver called us – it seemed someone had an urgent but minor medical need so he had to zoom to a rest stop, but all was well. We were separated by many miles now so we just agreed to rendezvous back in Pittsburgh.
The sun set as we drove near Summerset and darkness set in. I was changing lanes anticipating a quick rest stop when it happened – I hit a massive pothole that came out of nowhere and blew out both of my right side tires. We heard two explosive sounds and I felt the car careen wildly to the right. My coworker said very loudly “Stay calm” to the understandably upset clients. I managed to steer the vehicle onto the side of the road (thanks to all those “what if” scenarios from my Dad) and we came to a stop. Less than a minute later two other cars who hit the same exact pothole came to a stop behind us.
We escaped injury. But we were now stuck on the side of the Turnpike after dark nowhere near anything except a hill. My coworker checked on the clients and I left the vehicle to check on the other cars and assess the damage. Everyone else was fine – they only had one blowout each. The third car immediately began changing their tire to zoom away, but the second car contained two Marines on leave. They changed their own tire, realized changing two on my van was not viable and stayed with us.
I called 911 and was transferred to the State Police. They came to the scene in minutes to set up flares and block off the lane near us. That was it. They didn’t take a report. They didn’t even talk with me – I had to call 911 to keep getting put through to the dispatcher in whatever part of the State she was in, only to be told that there was nothing they could do. I had 4 disabled clients to get to safety and I was on my own.
I called AAA. Then I called my bosses boss who lived about 45 minutes away. Unfortunately, it was the evening of her son’s high school graduation so she was not able to personally come out to help us. I called the other residential sites to see if anyone had an extra staff on hand with access to a van. No one did, but they did start calling off-duty staff to see who could make it work.
The tow truck showed up and we made arrangements for the van to be taken to the nearest AAA approved garage. He asked what we were going to do. I still had no idea. He told me that the access road was less than half a mile down the road with a nearby fast food restaurant that would be open or awhile and we talked with the Marines – they had a two-seater and I realized that only one of my clients would even consider getting into their car alone with a man no matter who vetted him. The other three would not. One of my client also had a physical disability so the low slung car would be a tremendous challenge for her.
My clients – they never left me. They had faith that I and my coworker would figure it out. They told me this even as they refused to ride with the Marine to the local restaurant. They were scared, more so of past trauma than the current situation. And, man were they pissed off about the State Police.
Eventually, the tow truck driver said that while he was not supposed to do this, he could not leave us so he made 3 trips to the fast food restaurant with two of us per trip. He refused a tip, he did give me his name on the paperwork and I called his boss the following day to assure he wouldn’t be punished for being helpful and compassionate.
Eventually, my poor coworker who zoomed ahead turned out to be the only option so he had to go trade the car for a van and drive all the way back. I filled everyone with fast food while we waited. Then I crammed myself into the very back seat of the van for the trip home and stayed with him as he dropped each person at their home (everyone lived in the community on their own) until finally we arrived back to the site and realized that I had no car.
The people were fine. My car was fine with two spiffy new tires and no serious damage to the wheels, ect. The ladies in my group wrote a joint letter to the State Police and separate letters to their State Representatives whom they had just visited – voicing their displeasure over being abandoned on the side of the road. Walking to safety wasn’t an option for 3 out of 4 and hadn’t they just spent their day discussing that? Sadly, we got no response except one rationalization.
I remember that at our monthly group meeting one of the women said to me “If we had been killed, they would have had a press conference.”
She was right. Obviously, the State Police needed to secure the road to protect the other drivers and us from the pothole and obviously they had to fix the pothole quickly. But do they routinely leave people on the side of the road? Yes, they do.I learned this a few years later when my car broke down on the Parkway and we were left to wait for my Dad to arrive, pressing ourselves as close to the barrier as we could.
But the lesson for the ladies involved was sobering. They were floating on air at their new-found sense of power of self-advocacy only to have it all come crashing down when they were truly stuck. I was very impressed that they were directing their ire in a constructive manner and together, we discussed that the lesson was about their “self-advocacy” not waiting for the State to save them. Even when it really was a State public safety function to help disabled women safely leave the berm of the Turnpike. But then again, most of these women had been on some form of State (or Federal) waiting list at some point or another so they understood that while it wasn’t personal, it was to be expected that their safety – their housing, healthcare, independence, services, etc – were second-class priorities in Pennsylvania. The very fact that our programs were understaffed, vehicles not working and half of the off duty staff at second jobs is a reflection on the low priority.
If the tow truck driver had not stepped up, we would have stood there for another few hours waiting for someone from our agency to make the long trip around to collect us. That’s a sobering thought, but a reflection on how little value we place on human lives. If we were in body bags, there would have been coroner vans or ambulances to transport us off the Turnpike. And I was absolutely powerless to do anything about it. I didn’t even know any personal friend with a vehicle large enough to collect everyone as a favor to me.
I wasn’t truly alone because I had my coworker and the trust of my clients. But I was her boss and it was my car and I was feeling very guilty because I was driving and didn’t see the pothole. Mostly, I was so grateful no one was hurt.
So what did I expect? I don’t know – I’m not a public safety employee, but surely there had to be some level of engagement on the part of the State Police to make sure we were not left on the side of the road. My clients gave me permission to disclose that they were disabled and could not safely walk to safety in these circumstances. I know that they have jurisdiction, but they can grant access to the local authorities so why couldn’t the local police come to our assistance? It would have been a local ambulance if that was needed, right? We didn’t expect a ride home, just to a safe place. A fast food restaurant, a waiting room, a bus stop with a bench.
Lesson for me? Always, always have AAA. In fact, I’m renewing out membership for 2014 this very day.
On a lighter note, as we stood outside the van, one of my clients was eyeing up the damage and looked at me, saying ” Maybe the squeaky wheel needs more grease?” referring to the line I had used to encourage them to attend. Ha. Good one.