What it feels like to survive a fatal car crash

By Wendy Sarkissian, 2016

6 February 2016.
On the Murwillumbah-Kyogle Road, New South Wales, Australia

 

“Too fast! Oh, God! That white post’s awfully close to the car. Oh, too fast, too fast!

Smash.

Gliding, floating, flying…

Thud.

Blackness.

A pulse of electric blue light…

I come to my senses in cool, dark water in a muddy river, water rising quickly, rushing through one open window.

Late afternoon summer light is slanting in from above.

Upside down, after seconds that seem like hours, I manage to locate the buckle and unfasten my seat belt. Now I’m upright in the upside-down car, sitting on the roof with water to my chin. Air above, the floor above that.

Somehow, I’ve landed in the back of the car, facing my beloved’s back. My airbag must have thrown me there. He’s in the front, tangled in his seat belt.

I remember fragments of my last words to him in the car: “Oh, sweetie, thank you for the beautiful birthday lunch with our friends. Thank you for loving me for the past 23 years. I love you so much, beloved.” I reached my right hand out to pat his knee.

“Thank you. I’m so glad that made you happy. I love you too, Wadie,” was his delighted response, as he navigated the tight curves of the narrow, slippery rural road.

Now, in the back of the car, I have some air. I am breathing, and my heart is beating. My eyes can see, but dimly.

The front of the car has no air.

After skidding across the road, it had tumbled into the river, landing off-balance on its roof, the front fully submerged.

Karl is sitting up, silhouetted in water dark as chocolate milk. Once I’m free of mine, I make several desperate attempts, but I cannot untangle him from his seatbelt. His swimming hands describe gentle, small circles around his body. Maybe he’s reaching for me. Or maybe he’s unconscious, and that’s the current moving them. I reach forward and grasp one circling hand with my left hand.

Then I hear a shocking gurgle of water, like a large sink emptying, as river water fills his lungs. His head flops to one side. In seconds, he moves from life to lifelessness.

My beloved drowns before me.

He breathes his last breath into the river. This river, source of life to many, has extinguished his life.

Karl! Hold your head up!

I never call him Karl. Except in emergencies. Only “my beloved.”

Screaming at my beloved, only inches from me: “Karl! Hold your head up!”

Is this it, then? The end of all our dreams? Head to one side, lifeless?

My Romani husband hated water. Our honeymoon was the only time I saw him anywhere near it when we shared a celebratory swim. (Although he mostly referred to himself as “Gypsy”, sometimes, explaining cultural matters, Karl would use the proper term, Romani.) “It is in the tradition of the Romani people to avoid water,” he’d repeatedly declare, explaining that for centuries, members of genuine Romani communities avoided water as a gesture of freedom from oppressive bourgeois standards.

Is this the death we fear?

I’m frantic now. My mind is racing. The water’s still rising. It’s rising above my chin. I spin around, grabbing for all doors, but they are firmly stuck.

Karl has powerful talents, I remember. Maybe he has one spell left? Could his unique Romani magic defy natural laws, hex them? We are in an ancient, forgiving river, after all. In a spiritual centre. All we need is one small miracle.

I scream again: “Karl! Hold your head up!” Screaming at a dead man.

Silence now: car, river, the Gypsy, and me. Water rising around and within us.

I will not die in this river.

I take a last look at Karl, now collapsed forward, and dive down to reach the open window on my side. I slide through it, imagining I’ll need powerful strokes to reach the surface light.

I forget to take a breath, taste muddy water, swallow, splutter, and cough. Choking, gasping,

I open my eyes to find myself standing in only a meter of water outside the car.

Already people are crowding the narrow roadside above me.

“He’s drowning!” I scream at them. “Help us! Help us!” I scream. And scream again.

Trembling, barefoot, stumbling, I observe a surreal tableau of airbags, shopping bags, and roadmaps floating slowly through the hatch door, heading gently downstream, responding to the pull of the ocean. I reach for one and stop. How ridiculous!

Then I turn to see two men — later known to me as Rob and Ben — scrambling down the steep, slippery, reedy bank. “Help him, help him,” I yell at them. Rob tries the doors, but they are centrally locked. Ben wrenches a massive stone from the river bank and smashes the back window on Karl’s side. Rob pushes his head into a pocket of air, dives into the muddy water, and feels for the front door lock. He unlocks the front door. Then Ben pulls it open, untangles Karl from his seatbelt, and hauls his lifeless body through the door. They drag him from the river and prop him up on the bank.

I stand alone in the river. Nobody approaches me.

I pray. But nobody can reverse the natural order of things. When several attempts at CPR by Rob and a police officer fail, another police officer announces, first to others (“There’s no pulse”), and then, turning to look down at me (“Madam, I regret to inform you that your husband is deceased”).

The roadside above swarms with emergency vehicles and personnel.

I stand alone in the river.

* * *

Five men struggle for footholds on the bank. They steady a long metal ladder. I lift a bleeding foot onto the first rung. It’s cold. I glance back, terrified I’ll lose my grip and tumble backward.

I will not die in this river.

Partway up, I stop to gaze again at the man I love. I imprint this picture on my mind: my last glimpse. I steady myself and reach my right hand to touch his wrist.

It’s still warm. He is crossing the threshold.

“Love you with all my heart, beloved. You will live in my heart forever,” I whisper.

Fire trucks, ambulances, and police crowd the narrow road above me. Red and blue lights flashing. Small groups of people conferring. Light rain.

On the edge of the road, I stand alone on new ground, negotiating my balance with the Earth. I bend over, vomiting river water, waiting to be loaded into the ambulance.

Then I notice Rob Brims, surrounded by police, wrapped in a ragged towel, also bent over, shivering, sobbing. Dear, sweet man. He risked his life trying to save my beloved. I stumble over and speak to him. Thank him. Say some words: I don’t know what.

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