The Saddest Night of My Life
STAFF SGT. KARL POHL
4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne)
Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington
Do you remember the saddest night of your life? How did it impact you and for how long? You might remember every detail — or maybe you just have a blurry overview in no certain order. Sounds, smells, flashing lights might all come flooding back for no particular reason, or the specifics may be hard to recall by choice or from adrenaline and chaos. The saddest night of my life followed a wonderful day spent with family, eating steaks and just loving life. Ten years later, I remember it like it was yesterday, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about it.
Springtime in South Carolina’s low country is busy with school sports, family get-togethers and outdoor activities. We like to pretend that we had a long, hard winter and make up for it in a big way. One Saturday in April, I attended a family cookout about 80 miles from the University of South Carolina. I spent all day eating, playing baseball and soccer with my cousins and nephews, soaking up family time and leaving much later than planned. Saying my goodbyes at about 10 p.m., I got in my car and cranked up the radio for the nearly two-hour drive back to my dorm room. I knew fatigue could be a factor on my drive home, but in my 21-year-old mind, sleep was merely a suggestion and could easily be compensated with caffeine and death metal.
As I merged onto a four-lane highway divided by a wooded median, I noticed the taillights of a pickup truck about a half-mile ahead and set the cruise control to avoid speeding too terribly. I maintained attentiveness pretty well, only having to shake my head and adjust the air conditioner every so often. The truck ahead was my lone traveling companion on the empty stretch of road.
After about 15 miles, I thought I saw headlights, which shouldn’t have been possible in the westbound lanes. As the truck ahead crested a small hill, I briefly lost sight of it. When I crested the hill, I realized that the headlights were in fact real and now spinning in the left lane. I then saw the truck I’d been following tumbling end over end onto the right shoulder of the road.
Fully alert and totally freaking out, I pulled to the side of the road nearest the wrong-way vehicle, a convertible Volkswagen Beetle. The VW’s horn was blaring, and the smells of hot metal, brakes and skidding tires were overwhelming. I immediately called 911 and addressed the driver. She was visibly shaken and obviously intoxicated, but otherwise unharmed. I determined her vehicle was at no risk of catching fire, so I ran the roughly one-eighth of a mile to the overturned pickup truck.
The truck’s driver was screaming from inside the cab. He was calling out a name (“Kyle” for the sake of this article), but he was the only occupant. I tried to calm him in order to see if he was hurt or in danger of further injury. He only continued shouting for Kyle. I told him, “Sir, there’s nobody else in the truck. Are you OK?” He then told me that Kyle was his son. “Kyle was asleep in the truck, but I can’t find him,” he said. My heart sank.
I searched for what seemed forever before I found Kyle face down in a ditch, roughly 100 feet from the overturned truck. Kyle was a slightly pudgy 10-year-old with blond hair and a face that, I would learn later, smiled often. I had some CPR training from working as a summer camp counselor, but it was enough to realize that there was no helping this kid. His head was at the wrong angle and his torso was badly misshapen. Without question, he was dead.
I went back to the truck, desperately waiting for first responders to arrive and trying to find any words for the distraught father stuck upside down in his seat. I told him I found Kyle and that first responders were on the way to help him. I lied to him and let him believe his son might be OK after first responders arrived. By the time firefighters reached the accident scene, I felt like I’d aged 20 years. In reality, only 20 minutes had passed since the crash.
Over the next few weeks, I found out the circumstances behind the accident and learned several valuable lessons that continue impact my life. First, the driver of the VW had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.19%. She had been driving for more than two hours at the time of the accident. Either she was drinking in the car or was close to the point of blacking out before driving. Addressing Kyle’s family in court, the driver said she wished she’d died that night instead of their son. Every morning since, she’d hoped that she wouldn’t wake up.
Second, I was told by investigators that Kyle was wearing his seat belt prior to being ejected from the vehicle. However, his seat was also fully reclined, rendering the lap and shoulder belts less effective in the combined 120-mph head-on collision. Kyle slid under the shoulder belt and over the lap belt.
Third, I drove fatigued, which also put others on the road in danger. Before getting behind the wheel of my vehicle, I didn’t account for how such a long day would affect me physically. While that might not be the same level of carelessness or willful disregard for safety the VW driver exhibited, it doesn’t absolve me in this scenario.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that going too long without sleep can impair a person’s ability to drive the same way as drinking too much alcohol. Being awake for at least 18 hours is the same as someone having a BAC of 0.05%. Being awake for at least 24 hours is equal to having a BAC of 0.10%, which is higher than the legal limit (0.08%) in all states. The biggest difference between the VW driver and myself was that I was lucky enough to not be involved in the collision or one like it.
The sound of a screaming, distraught father desperately searching for his son frequently haunts my dreams. I taste and smell the hot metal, and the world looks like it’s lit by headlights and hazard flashers. I then wake up and promise myself I will not be the reason an accident like this happens again. While I still might make the occasional poor decision, I flat out refuse to allow an intoxicated person to drive or a passenger to ride fully reclined. I also ensure I am well-rested before I get behind the wheel.
I hope anyone reading this article will take this experience to heart and recognize the sights, sounds and smells from that night are ones I will never forget. The life you save could be your own, but it could also be one you can’t live with taking.