Sometimes we're going along in life and something happens that smacks us out of our normal groove and suspends time for a little while. Sometimes those moments are good and beautiful, and sometimes those moments are awful and shocking. We had a desperately sad and tragic experience on our way to visit our families for Thanksgiving. Before you read further, I'll assure you that my family and I are safe. But another family, or rather two families, are not doing well at all this holiday season.
On our long drive to visit family we always pass through part of the Finger Lakes of New York, where there's a large Amish community. Horse-drawn buggies and wagons are common along the roads there, and we always watch out for them, especially at night. The Amish generally favor not only black buggies, but also dark-colored horses, making them nearly invisible at night except for some reflective tape or safety triangles on the back of their vehicles.
About ten minutes below Seneca Falls, we saw two cars stopped up ahead - one facing us in the oncoming lane, and one facing south with its flashers on, in our lane. There also appeared to be a couple other vehicles just a dozen yards or so farther ahead, at a crossroads. There were no street lights; it was very dark. We slowed and came to a stop maybe 25 feet behind the stopped car. It took a few moments for us to take in what we were seeing in our headlights: a large SUV on the shoulder of the road across from us, its left front fender and bumper smashed, its driver tearfully, frantically talking on the phone; the road covered with glass shards and wood fragments; a lady in pants and a sweater kneeling over a dark shape in the road, barely visible in front of the car in our lane; and dimly, off to the right in the field, yards away from the road, the silhouette of what took us a few moments to recognize as a buggy on its side, misshapen and strange.
Someone had hit an Amish buggy at the crossroads.
The lady and another person were already kneeling by whoever was lying in the road. There were a couple other vehicles on the far side of the crossroads, but we couldn't see much past the car in front of us. I put our flashers on and called 911, while my husband got out to get a better look at the situation. The kids were upset in the back seat, our daughter asking what had happened to the horse, our son needing reassurance that we were calling for help and that we were okay ourselves. He kept asking if he should call his Nana on the phone to tell her what was going on and that we'd be late; we told him not to call until we knew more.
We must not have been the first to call 911, because within a couple minutes a volunteer fireman pulled up, blue lights flashing from the top of his vehicle. Then a second, and a third. Princess Yakyak pulled a blanket from the back of our car, and I took it to one of the volunteer firemen, for him to use with any victim who needed it - it was cold outside, cloudless and starlit.
We stayed out of the way of the emergency personnel as they arrived from the north and south - more volunteer firemen, a fire truck, an ambulance, another rescue vehicle, two more ambulances, and the State Troopers. One trooper brought some Amish people to the scene. I imagine in such a close community amid several small towns, the troopers knew who to pick up and bring to the scene right away.
We could see very little from our car, and I would not let PYY get out. Safety Guy got out to look a little closer as my husband called his parents to tell them we'd be late. Both of them stayed well back from the victims. Safety Guy was upset that we wouldn't let him, a Boy Scout (as he vehemently reminded us), dive in and help. We couldn't see much, but I could tell that this was no scene for a seventh grade Boy Scout to be involved in, and other adults were already doing what they could to help. I don't want to imagine the injuries suffered by the people in the buggy.
After a little while, the firemen had us move our car onto the shoulder of the road so the ambulance could get by. Back in the car all together, we reiterated to the kids that we were already doing what we could to help: we had stopped and put on the flashers (to stop further traffic behind us), we called 911 right away, we gave a blanket to the volunteer firemen (and the kids saw them put it on someone in the SUV), and we stayed out of the way of the emergency personnel and obeyed them when they asked us to move the car. Also, we prayed for the people involved in the accident, and for the emergency workers helping them. Safety Guy still wasn't happy to be told to let the professionals do their job. I admire him for wanting to help.
We couldn't go anywhere; we had to sit and watch as events unfolded. There were a couple dozen cars backed up behind us before the road was closed and traffic redirected down a side road a country "block" behind us (something like a third of a mile). We waited to see if the police needed to speak to us, since we'd been on the scene right after the accident, but since we didn't witness it ourselves, we were eventually allowed to go as they cleared the backlog of stopped cars.
Just like that, we left the scene of the accident and drove off into the night, away from the flashing lights and the glittering bits of glass on the road, away from the sad, crushed shape of the buggy in the field, away from the victims whose names we didn't know but suddenly felt connected to, away from the woman in the SUV whom we'd heard crying, "I didn't see them, I couldn't stop!" It was utterly surreal to just drive away from the scene of such pain and chaos, and back into our life - over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go. . . .
We made our way along back roads and then south again, and soon stopped at a mini mart/McD's plaza. It felt like being on another planet, bright and shiny and fake after the brutal reality of the crossroads. We all needed to get out of the car and get some space. The kids and my husband had a snack, I had a drink - I just couldn't eat. We saw a young Amish man also leaving the store right after we got back in the car. He went around to the back of the building, then pulled out with his own horse and buggy. Unlike most Amish buggies, this one was painted a lighter gray color, and had battery-powered head lights and flashing safety lights on its back and sides. It was a sad reminder of the scene we'd left behind us, and I wondered if he knew the people in the other buggy.
Three days later, we don't know much more about the accident. Because of the holiday, perhaps, the little local newspapers and online news outlets were slow to pick up on the story. This evening I saw one little blurb online, and the details they listed from an "eyewitness" don't quite match what we saw, so I'm taking their reporting with a grain of salt. Still, they say that there were two victims from the buggy, but their status is not known. The story also reported that the horse ran away (which our daughter was relieved to hear, and although I strongly suspect the horse to be injured as well, I didn't tell her that). They gave the cause of the accident as a "runaway horse" that bolted through the crossroads.
I'm writing this all down here on my blog as a way for me to process what happened. I suspect we'll be working through this with our kids over time as well - they could not help but be affected by what we saw. Driving home from Thanksgiving, on another starlit night, we passed along the same stretch of road where the accident occurred. PYY didn't say anything then, but she'd told me earlier that she was afraid to go back to school and have her teacher ask her what she'd done over her break. Safety Guy was quietly anxious as we passed that way, and he reached to take my hand as we drove, for reassurance. I hope and pray that this experience and memory can be used for good in our lives, even as I hope and pray for the recovery of the Amish victims, and for the driver of the SUV. None of our lives will ever be the same.