by Dan Whitaker
Our family has six siblings, but time and distance kept us apart for nearly 15 years. We finally planned an event where everyone could be together — a river rafting trip near Missoula, Montana, over the 2002 Fourth of July holiday. It was wonderful to get together and reminisce, and renew friendships and love.
The next day, after an exciting river rafting trip on the Blackfoot River, I was on my way with two vanloads of relatives to a campground. We were all tired and sunburned, dozing off from a perfect Montana day.
Suddenly the SUV I was in went out of control, racing down the median at 80 miles per hour. The driver oversteered, first to the right, shooting us back across the freeway, then to the left. The tires bit into the dirt and the vehicle flipped over and over.
I was in the passenger seat with my seatbelt on. I saw glass breaking, suddenly had a mouth full of dirt, felt violent chaos and hit very hard on my right shoulder against the door. In an instant it was over and the vehicle landed on its wheels. I got out and helped my nephew out, who had a broken nose. I knew I had broken ribs, but that was all. I was relatively OK.
The van behind us stopped and our horrified relatives poured out. Suddenly, a cry arose when they found that my sister and her husband had been ejected out the small side window, at the same time, crushing his chest and her pelvis and legs. They landed against the fence between the freeway and the frontage road. They were lying next to each other as if they were in bed. My sister’s head and neck were in a terrible bent position, up against the fence. She was struggling to breathe.
Suddenly someone appeared on the frontage road on the other side of the fence and jumped out of his car. While his wife called 911, he immediately grabbed the chain link fence and pulled with all his might, freeing my sister’s head so that it could drop gently to the soft grass beneath. That allowed her to clear her throat and breathe.
He saved her life. He held the fence with all his strength for what seemed to be 20 minutes or more. It was a very stiff fence, but he wouldn’t let go. When the police arrived, they cut the fence back with wire cutters. The man and his wife left without giving us their names.
My sister is patched together with wires and screws and will live, but still has a year of rehab ahead. Her husband is back home in Denver, amazingly in good condition. I’m thankful that we are all here still, and can look forward to another reunion.
We may never know who that man was, but he taught us something that day: don’t give up and don’t let go.