SGT. 1ST CLASS RUPPERT BAIRD
Company A, 2nd Helicopter Battalion
151st Aviation (Security and Support)
McEntire Joint National Guard Base
Columbia, South Carolina
It was just before New Year’s and I was leaving Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, to move my family back to South Carolina. I was coming off active duty and rented a twin-axle trailer and installed a hitch on my minivan. This was a do-it-yourself move and we’d loaded all of our worldly possessions into the trailer. Our 4-year-old daughter was in her car seat, strapped to the front passenger seat, and our 2-year-old son was in his car seat, secured to the rear bench seat next to my wife. The family cat was also with us as we left a few minutes before midnight.
I was anxious as we pulled out of Tacoma and headed east toward Snoqualmie Pass and the Cascade Mountains. As we made our way through the pass, we encountered gusting winds that rocked the van and trailer, so I slowed to ensure I kept full control. After we got through the pass, the winds died down. We merged onto Interstate 82 and I settled in for a night of driving.
One of the strange anomalies of the interstate system is a loop on I-82 in southeastern Washington. I planned to bypass this loop by going through Prosser on State Highway 221 and reentering I-82 just north of Umatilla, Oregon. Mind you, this was before cellphones or vehicle GPS were so easily accessible, so the only thing I had was a map. It seemed logical to me that this would be a safe, well-traveled route.
As we pulled through Prosser, I recognized the dangers posed by the ice, snow and wind and drove at or below the speed limit. I then began climbing into Horse Heaven Hills. I saw a warning sign for a 90-degree right turn with a 25-mph speed limit, so I slowed, feeling sure I would be fine at 20 mph. The black ice didn’t agree.
As I eased around the turn, I felt the trailer rock. Thinking I had encountered winds again, I decelerated. That was a mistake. Even though the van made the corner, the trailer slid on the ice. Before I knew what happened, the van and trailer jackknifed and I was out of control. I tried steering in the direction of the skid to no avail. All I could do was hold on as my van was pushed diagonally across the road and into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, there were no other drivers on the road.
I watched helplessly as the van’s passenger door struck a road sign, shattering glass all over my daughter and into the van. My wife had been sleeping on the van’s floor and woke up just in time to feel the wheels come off the pavement as we encountered soft dirt on the roadside. We felt the van tilt and roll over at least twice before landing on its right side.
My daughter and son were screaming. I reached down from my now-elevated seat, brushed the glass shards off my daughter and found her unhurt. I then looked to the rear to check on my wife and son. He was firmly strapped into his car seat while my wife was sitting cross-legged on the interior right side of the van. Although stunned, she was amazingly calm. I repeatedly asked her if she and our son were all right. Incredibly, they were.
I looked forward and was surprised the van’s engine, headlights, radio and heater were still functioning perfectly. I took a breath, shut off the van and smelled for gasoline but didn’t detect any fumes. Nevertheless, I decided we needed to exit the van immediately. I removed my seat belt, carefully pushed open the driver-side door, pulled myself out of the van and had my wife hand our children up to me. I then helped my wife out of the van. A carload of teenagers soon rolled up to the accident scene. They helped me move my wife and kids off the side of the van and placed them inside their warm car while I assessed the situation.
The rear hatch and left-rear portion of the van’s body and roof were caved in. The trailer stayed connected to the hitch and rolled with us as we overturned. The trailer doors had popped open, scattering many of our belongings, and our cat was gone. I returned over the next few days, but I never found him.
The van and the trailer were totaled, but the people of Prosser were incredible and took excellent care of us during our six-day stay. We ended up driving home in the largest rental truck U-Haul had — the only one that fit a family of four. We spent all of our travel money and maxed out our credit card. Thankfully, the only injury was a bruise to my wife’s shoulder. The rest of our trip home was uneventful.
I’ve always been impatient to get on the road. On this journey, I let that get in the way of proper trip planning and risk assessment. I’d rented a trailer that was too large for my minivan. And while I was aware of the black ice danger on the roads, I assumed my two years of winter driving had adequately prepared me for it. Unfortunately, an unfamiliar road, an extra-heavy load and an effort to save money proved to be my downfall.
Clearly, I should have hired a professional moving company. Also, I should have waited until the morning to leave, when much of the ice would have been melted. I also should have ensured my wife remained properly buckled.
The good thing about lessons learned is that you get the opportunity to avoid repeating your mistakes. Back then, online tools like U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s Travel Risk Planning System didn’t exist. Now that they do, I — as a full-time National Guardsman — use them. It sure beats being smashed and stranded on the road.
For help planning your next trip, including the risks you may encounter on the road, visit the Travel Risk Planning System tool at https://trips.safety.army.mil/TRiPS.