We were tourists tooling down the road on the roller-coaster route of U.S. 20 last Saturday between Mountain Home and Idaho Falls, sampling a seemingly never-ending series of “Historical Markers” gas-and-gos in Fairfield, Carey, Arco and beyond.
On the way out and back from joining in the celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary on a beautiful day we were awed and amused by the landscape. We saw such varied attractions as Magic Reservoir, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve — and the U.S. Department of Energy’s huge footprint where Idaho National Laboratory pursues some of its mission.
In the early evening on our way back West we were closing in on our overnight destination: Ketchum and the Sawtooth foohills. Tired and ready to relax, we just wanted to get there, have some dinner, witness a craggy-peak sunset and get a good night’s rest.
But just north of Hailey we became witness to something else — a tragic real-life scene of carnage near where northbound U.S. 75 meets Buttercup Road. A few clicks beyond the airport the traffic slowed abruptly. People were stopping, bolting out of their cars — leaving doors wide open — dialing up their phones and rushing to the aid of something, someone just a few cars ahead of us.
Within minutes the traffic crawled and forged new lanes around the havoc: a damaged car that settled on its top on the shoulder with people still inside; right in the middle of the road was a smashed-beyond-repair unrecognizable car. The impact had bulldozed the front bumper and collapsed the hood. Bent wheels had been crumpled. Windows were blown out and air bags and curtains fully deployed.
As the emergency crews arrived and volunteer citizens directed traffic, we had no choice but to move past the accident to free up the lane.
Our spirits sank and we cringed at the sounds of screams and moaning. A witness to the accident was trying to comfort a small child extracted from one of the cars. Someone else seemed to be conversing with its driver, who, for whatever reason, could not get out of the car.
I immediately thought of the “100 deadliest days” that Idaho law enforcement warns about, that period from Memorial Day to Labor Day — the most common time of the year for fatal crashes.
My wife and I realized we were just a few cars away from potentially being involved in this horrific scene. Had we not stopped to gas up and linger to answer a text in Arco, maybe we would have been among the four treated at St. Luke’s Wood River Hospital and then air-transported to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise for treatment.
The Idaho Mountain Express reported Wednesday that one of the drivers — the mother of two children involved in the accident — was treated and released but her two toddlers remained hospitalized in stable condition with facial fractures. The driver of the other car was in serious condition with broken bones. The Blaine County Sheriff’s Department continues to investigate the cause of the head-on collision that occurred in good weather and visibility around 6:18 p.m. Saturday.
As the Statesman’s Nate Poppino reported Wednesday, we are just in the first month of the 100 deadliest days and there have been 34 traffic-related deaths across the state. The words of Teresa Baker, a spokeswoman for the Idaho State Police, throb in my mind as my memory replays the awful scene we happened upon.
“We just need people to be more respectful to other motorists,” Baker said. “It might be your family member that’s in the crash.”
Driving can’t be just another juggling multi-task. It must be a focused, clear-headed and distraction-free endeavor, deserving of our full concentration and anticipation.
We never know when our blissful summer travels might be met head-on with tragedy.