General Articles

Could You Save a Life?

If you came across people dying in a road smashup, would you know what to do? Here’s the nightmare story of a man who didn’t

CRAIG M. MOONEY October 15 1948
General Articles

Could You Save a Life?

If you came across people dying in a road smashup, would you know what to do? Here’s the nightmare story of a man who didn’t

CRAIG M. MOONEY October 15 1948

Could You Save a Life?

If you came across people dying in a road smashup, would you know what to do? Here’s the nightmare story of a man who didn’t


ON WEEK ENDS during the summer months my wife and I do a lot of driving in heavy traffic and at the times when it is most dangerous. We have often wondered what we would do if we were first on the scene of an accident. Well we found out.

It was a superb summer day, hot and brilliant with sunshine. My wife and I had left the city behind and were headed north into the hills for the weekend. Ten miles from the city the traffic began to thin out until we could skim up one hill and down and over the next without meeting more than an occasional car or two.

The road took a long swing upward to the right as it topped a high ridge and then straightened out for the steep descent through the valley ahead. As we floated over the top and started down we both stiffened. My wife uttered a cry of terror. My foot went to the brake, pressing down slowly at first and then harder and harder.

Through our windshield, as though it were a movie screen, we saw a panel-truck speeding down the hill ahead of us start a long swing from the left side of the road toward the right. It didn’t straighten out. In a most casual way it simply took off just short of the culvert at the bottom, sailed smoothly out into space, landed on the near side of the dried-out water course, bounced high in the air, struck again, rolled over and over and then lay strangely still in the tall weeds and grass 25 or 30 feet below the embankment. A faint cloud of dust rose in its wake. We stared incredulously. The whole thing had seemed stagey and unreal.

We were the only moving thing in that quiet landscape. Ahead and behind the road was empty. Off to the left about an eighth of a mile was a small farmhouse with a man and woman standing in the

doorway looking in our direction. They didn’t move.

With a sickening feeling of apprehension and repugnance I brought our car to a stop on the right shoulder of the road over the culvert and opposite the wrecked truck in the ravine below, yanked on the hand brake and turned off the ignition.

Then-—most hateful—up out of the ravine came a medley of smothered shouts, moans and cries. This madhouse noise was coming from within the truck.

I had to go down there! I had to get that thing open! In a frenzy of haste I snatched up the first aid kit which I’d bought two months before but never opened and leaped out. I told my wife to stay up on the highway, flag down cars and get help.

As I vaulted the guardrail and skidded down into the ravine a further complication threatened. Clouds of smoke were pouring from the motor. I had a horrible vision of it catching on fire with those screaming people caught inside.

From this point on and for many minutes to come I lived in a very narrow world. I had eyes, ears, hands and awareness only for that vehicle and its contents. Afterward I had to question my wife about many of the surrounding details and even some of my own actions.

Somehow I was at the rear of the truck. It was lying on its right side and the back doors had burst open. I dragged out broken seats, bedding, clothing, canned goods, sticky broken boxes of food and bite of junk. A putrid smell arose from this mess. Then, one after the other, three terrified boys came crawling out, badly shaken up, bleeding from numerous small cuts, their clothing torn and disheveled. I noticed they could walk and stopped crying as soon as they were out. Inside, another child was shrieking frantically and from somewhere else I could hear heavy groans.

In a Rain of Blood

IRAN around to the front. Now I saw the head and shoulders of a thickset heavy man rear up through the shattered window of the left-hand door. He was drenched in blood. He rubbed his right hand across his face trying to clear his eys. Then he stooj>ed down and tugged at something.

I peered inside. He was straddling a child who seemed to be trapped underneath him and was thrashing about and shrieking in fear or pain. The man’s blood was raining down on him. I saw that the boy’s foot was pinned under the bottom door frame. Then I remembered the smoking motor and prayed that it wouldn’t catch on fire.

The man straightened up with a grimace shaking; his head dazedly and helplessly. He looked at me in a placating and conciliatory way, shrugged, then reached down again to tug at the child with his right arm. His left dangled at his side and now I saw where the stream of blood was coming from. The arm was cut half through from the inside toward the elbow joint. The two open halves looked like red sponge and reminded me of colored illustrations in medical books—the cross-sectional view of the meat of the arm—skin tissue, muscles, fibres in concentric layers

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Could You Save a Life?

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going right down to white bone. Somewhere in this red maw was the open end of an artery. I realized he could bleed to death if I didn’t tie off the arm. But I could do nothing for him until the child was out. I needed help.

A car had stopped and two men were walking over to the edge of the road. I beckoned furiously and they came running down. We braced ourselves and shoved carefully against the roof while the man inside stooped down and pulled the boy free with his one good arm. The boy wasted no time scuttling through the tangled interior and out. the back.

The man was breathing heavily and I was afraid that at any moment he might collapse and fall down inside the car where it would be impossible to help him. I had him lean against the car and prop his left arm up on top in an effort to stop the bleeding while I fashioned some sort of tourniquet. My hands were trembling so violently that 1 had trouble getting into the first aid kit. This was the first time I had ever looked inside it so I didn’t know what was in the various packages. I ripped them open one after the other until I came upon a large bandage. I thought vaguely of knotting this to make a large loop then knotting the loose ends again to make a small loop through which I could put a stick to twist the thing tight once I got it about his arm. But I had no stick and I felt I had no time to go looking for one. And I doubted whether I could tie the proper loops with my shaking hands. I decided I would tie the bandage around his arm tight enough to cut off that terrible dribble of blood.

I stood up with the bandage stretched between my hands and wound it tightly around his upper arm, held the ends and looked into the wound; the blood continued to run out. No good. I unwound it. The blood was all over my hands and arms. It was thick and amazingly slimy and had a pungent smell that I disliked intensely. I stepped back to avoid getting blood onto my flannel trousers and then, ashamed of this feeling, moved in close, desperately determined to stop the flow of blood.

A lesser arm would have been wholly amputated by that terrible gash. This was a big man and his arm was quite thick and muscular. (I learned later that he was a baker by trade.) In the crudest way, using all my strength, I pulled the loop tight and knotted it. The blood slowed to an ooze and looked as if it might clot. The man was stoical throughout, nodding and muttering approvingly. (I didn’t know at the time that this arm was also broken. Perhaps it was just as well.)

The Silent Audience

Now I had to get him out of the truck while he was still upright. I thought vaguely of lifting him out and glanced up to see who might give me a hand.

A half a dozen cars had stopped up on the highway and several people were standing along the roadside. They stared down, curious, passive, unspeaking, withdrawn, prepared to stand there forever. Did they figure this was my affair? I shouted up at them angrily. Had someone gone to call a doctor and an ambulance? They stirred and glanced questioningly at one another. Someone must have gone, I thought. I looked for my wife. She was kneeling down questioning one of the bloodstained boys. I forgot about them all.

My man was just about at the end of

his tether. He was gulping for air andweaving about while great drops of perspiration burst on his forehead and joined the rivulets of blood which were running from cuts about his head and in his hair. I couldn’t pull him through the door so I asked him to try to work his way out through the back of the truck. He nodded and slid down inside while I ran around, crawled in and helped him along. Then I led him over to the sloping side of the ravine where he could lie down with his arm above his head.

But before I got him there he jerked away and started weaving toward something I hadn’t seen before. About 10 yards away and halfway up the bank lay an old man who had apparently been thrown out and crushed under the truck as it rolled down. He was blood-stained, deathly pale and lay distorted on a tangled portion of wire fence which had been ripped away by the truck. Crouched by his head speaking softly to him was the oldest of the boys who had been in the truck. Now I identified the monotonous sounds which I had heard before. Thase were the weary, broken groans coming from the old man.

I held my man back and urged him down onto the grass with the brusque reassurance that the old man was merely shaken up and would be all right in a little while. He gave in reluctantly and fell back exhausted. I placed his arm on the ground above his head. He squirmed and muttered something about his wrist watch. I swore at myself for forgetting this. The band was tight in his flesh and slippery with blood and I had difficulty getting it off. I placed it in the watch pocket of his trousers.

What to Do?

The time was twenty-five past two. The tourniquet must have been on for eight or ten minutes. It would soon have to be loosened to let some blood out and reduce the pressure on his arm.

I was sorry I hadn’t taken the time to put on a proper tourniquet. This one couldn’t be loosened—it would have to come right off. I hoped the doctor would come before I had to do this.

In a complete inner funk I walked over and stared down at the old man. He seemed to be suffering intensely. Perhaps he was dying. I had never seen a man die this way before and didn’t know whether they made these kinds of noises or not. I thought perhaps I should examine him but had no clear idea how to go about this. How would 1 know if his neck or his back was broken or his insides smashed up and what would 1 do about it anyhow? I decided I’d better leave him alone until the doctor came. I brought a coat from the truck, folded it up and carefully fixed him up a pillow.

Then the other man began to call for a drink of water. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought pf it? Shock, loss of blood and the blistering heat of the sun would make him desperately thirsty. 1 called up to the crowd on the roadway asking that someone go across to the farmhouse for a pail of water.

Several more people had arrived and I gathered from the jammed cars that the road was blocked on both sides. The earlier arrivals were squeezing together to make room for newcomers who pressed forward to stare down morbidly. Three or four of the more curious had come down to examine the truck and kick at the homely articles scattered through the grass. A young man had clambered up on a post and was peering into the view finder of a fancy camera which he had trained on

us. The other three boys who had been in the truck stood huddled together at the top of the bank, faces sober and set, their eyes fixed unwaveringly on the big man lying on the grass.

A tense moment occurred when a young man and two young women pushed excitedly through the crowd and came out beside the three boys. Seeing them torn, dirty and bloody one Of the girls gave a horrified cry and ran over to them calling out their names. Then she whirled about and looked at the shambles below. She screamed and her hands went over her face. Her two companions were almost as shocked. They hesitated between the hysterical girl, the three boys and the injured men below. The young man muttered something to the girls then started down the embankment. The first girl started down after him but the other caught her arm and held her back pleading with her not to go down. The girl struggled until the smallest of the hoys began to whimper; then she gave in, turned and knelt down beside the boys and began to question them anxiously.

Where’s That Doctor?

The young man brushed past me and bent over the man on the grass asking hfim insistently what had happened. But the man only twisted and called for water. The young man persisted until I shook my head, then he went over to the old man, glanced at him, started to speak, stopped, then turned and hurried back up to the two girls.

I began to feel sorry for myself. I wished to God 1 could get out of there. Why didn’t the doctor come? 1 didn’t want to stand there and see the old man die. Trapped and helpless 1 stared up malevolently at that withdrawn crowd of matrons, fishermen, campers, girls and their boy friends, two clergymen, the camera fiend, a stout man with his pipe and all the rest. It struck me with crooked humor that this was like an operating theatre—they were the critical observers and I some sort of clownish surgeon. This wasn’t my affair any more than it was theirs!

In the 20 minutes I had been down there not one of that crowd of fellow mortals had come down to speak to me. No one had asked if he could be of any help. No one had volunteered his car to take any of the injured people to the city. Each time I shouted up about a doctor or an ambulance they stirred restlessly and looked questioningly from one to the other. They assumed someone else had gone or

would go. When I called for water they nodded approvingly. Oh yes, of course, water, they murmured. He wants water, they repeated to those who hadn’t quite heard.

“Has someone gone for water?” I roared furiously.

I looked among them until I saw my wife. She nodded vigorously and pointed in the direction of the farmhouse.

At 2.35 two young women pushed through the crowd and without hesitation came straight down. One went to the old man and the other to my man on the grass. They were nurses who happened to be passing by. They got busy checking for cuts and fractures. They loosened the tourniquet and replaced it with a workmanlike job. The pail of water arrived and we were able to moisten cloths and start sponging off blood and dirt.

A few minutes, later the crowd parted with a murmur of relief to make way for a tall, bare-headed man who hurried down jerking open his black bag. At last, the doctor! But no, it wasn’t the doctor—it was a doctor. He, too, merely happened to be driving by. So there was still no ambulance. I turned over my first aid kit and was pleased at his grunt of approval. He explained grumblingly that he was on his holidays and was hardly prepared for this sort of thing. He made a careful examination of the two men and shook his head unhappily over the old man. He checked over the boys quickly, saw that they were not seriously hurt, let them go and then returned to the two men. He worked over them for quite a while, packing, bandaging and, assisted by the two nurses, putting splints on the big man's broken arm and on the left leg of the old man. He dispatched a bystander to the farmhouse to fetch some boiled water so that he could give the men an injection of morphine.

I joined my wife up on the highway and we wandered about through the crowd. We heard a portly matron remark indignantly to a curious newcomer that it was fortunate those two nurses had come along Ixrcause they were simply the very first to go down and do something for those poor people. My wife gasped and turned hut 1 caught her arm and we moved along. 1 wondered how many of the people there had first aid equipment and went from group to group to find out. Apparently, of the 30-odd cars collected there not one contained a first aid kit.

A stoutish, pleasant gentleman came

up to us and invited us to wash up at his place about a quarter of a mile away. We accepted his invitation gladly. After we cleaned up, we drove back, intending to pick up the first aid kit and return home since neither of us had much stomach left for our fishing expedition.

A highway policeman had arrived and was chivvying the people into their cars and on their way. Otherwise, the scene hadn’t changed. The two men lay as we had last seen them. The doctor was standing by his car wiping his hands on a towel. The portly matron was remarking even more indignantly that the policeman had been about to put a ticket on the nurses’ car so she had just gone over and given him a piece of her mind !

The young man, two girls and the three small boys still stood in a knot, staring down hopelessly and silently at the two men. This tableau interested me. 1 went over and asked if they were friends or relatives of the in jured men. The girl who had been most upset nodded mutely; the other nervously pointed to the man on the grass and then to her companion and said that he was her father. She and her friends had been in another car driving ahead of the panel truck—they were taking the boys north to a summer camp-and then they noticed the truck was no longer following them. They had stopped and waited a while and then had turned around and driven back and . . . She stopped and seemed to forget I was there.

1 went over to the policeman, told him I had seen the accident happen and gave him my name and address. When he asked me what had caused it I said it looked as if the steering had failed. He said that was what he gathered from the big man down there who had been the driver.

By the time I had retrieved my haversack it was a few minutes past three o’clock. Fifteen minutes later, on the outskirts of the city an ambulance wailed past us on the way out. At least another half hour lay between those victims and the hospital.

Al, home we sat down and split a bottle of cold beer. It tasted very good.

I wasn’t in any hurry to get out of my blood-stained clothes. The beer first! Blood? It didn't matter . . .

What Should Be Done

Later we asked ourselves, well now, what about this?

We also looked up a doctor friend and a police constable both of whom have had considerable first-hand experience with traffic accidents, told them about our accident and asked them to put us straight on a few points.

If you are a driver, especially a weekend driver, you may be interested in what we found, for the chances are that eventually you, too, will come on the scene of an accident that has just happened. The predicted highway traffic toll for 1948 is more than 1,500 killed and some 25,000 injured, and about one third of these accidents occur on Saturdays and Sundays.

Here’s what we’ve decided:

The first aid kit is a “must,” not only because of its practical value but because it is good psychological insurance. When you are running toward a smashed-up car with its cargo of screaming humanity you feel somewhat better if you have some equipment with you.

And, thinking of what might, have happened had the motor of that panel truck caught on fire, we have decided to add one other item of equipment—a small fire extinguisher.

Next: that when people gather in

a crowd at the scene of an accident

they all too often fall into a state of frozen, horrified helplessness. There is no use, then, in expecting “someone” to go for a doctor or an ambulance or for water; if you are the one who has to take over you should button-hole specific individuals and tell them exactly what you want them to do.

There was only one respect in which, according to the accident statistics, our accident differed from the great majority. Ours was due to defective steering gear; but, in Ontario, during nine months of 1947, of 25,318 vehicles involved in accidents 24,206 were in good condition. The great majority of accidents occur on a good road, in clear weather, in the daytime, with an experienced driver in charge of a sound vehicle, traveling straight ahead.

The casualties were typical. Of people injured, some 60% suffer shock with bruises and cuts and some 20% suffer fractures of the skull, spine and limbs. The two great killers are fractures of the skull and internal injuries.

The minimum first aid which may have to be given prior to the arrival of medical assistance, assuming it is going to get there quickly, is fairly simple: for those suffering shock, get them to lie down and remain quiet; for serious bleeding, bandage the cuts or wcunds tightly or use tourniquets; for those with fractures and internal injuries, get them to lie down or if, as is more likely, they are already down, leave them alone, don’t move them and don’t let anyone else do so. This last is essential; otherwise, without knowing it, you may kill them.

How about getting medical assistance on the scene quickly? In metropolitan areas, cities and towns, the invariable rule is to call the police. They are very well prepared to act fast. However, out on the highways and country roads it is sometimes very difficult to get a doctor oran ambulance to the scene quickly. This, as we have learned, is where the unlucky good Samaritan is in for a bad time of it. We wish we knew the answer to this one.

The helpful traveler has an easier time of it if he’s driving on one of the main highways where the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance, motor leagues, or other private groups maintain firstaid stations. There are 150-odd of these posts in Canada, 60 of them in Ontario, stocked with medical supplies and in the care of a trained first-aid man. In Ontario, too, the St. John Ambulance, Red Cross and Ontario Motor League maintain three roving ambulances.

That’s very commendable, and the week-end driver should look with a warm eye on all these efforts. But why shouldn’t the highway departments extend these services more widely and train the public how to use them? How about accident alarm boxes on telephone poles every mile, where you simply pull a lever and things start happening, just as with fires? How about . . .?

Well—maybe someone else will take it from here.

* * *

Perhaps, after all, in my ignorance I did save a life. When I went to the hospital the other day I learned that the baker who had come so close to losing his arm was out and recovering satisfactorily. The old man was still in bad shape—he had a broken arm, a broken leg, a broken pelvis and other internal injuries —but he was expected to live, although he would be in hospital for a long time. And those four kids, who'd rattled around in the back of that plunging truck like beans in a gallon can, had escaped with no more than a few bruises and a bad fright. ★