JULY FIRES AND THE ALASKA RANGE

Setting aside the immutable horrors of war experienced by downrange infantry soldiers for a moment, I would like to share an equally traumatic event from early adulthood. I was only 17 at the time, having never even seen a dead human being, let alone being present as one died. So much about this event was fucked from the start. Even today, as I delve back into those memories, I instantly feel anxiety and fear rising up within, some 25 years later.

It was a typically beautiful July afternoon in South Central Alaska; a perfect day to view the majestic Western Alaska Range on the drive North to Fairbanks, 300 miles ahead. At the Talkeetna cutoff, roughly 100 miles North of Anchorage, I stopped to refuel my little Volkswagen Golf -diesel was 90 cents a gallon, that’s how long ago it was- and purchase a few snacks. My vehicle was temperamental and by chance, I ran into a long haul trucker at the truck stop who I knew, asking him if I could trail him in case of any further car trouble? It was a plan and we left. It was about 3pm.

I was coming from the Kenai Peninsula, where I had graduated High School 2 years earlier, hauling a couple coolers of fresh caught Homer Halibut and Kenai River Sockeye Salmon for my parents in Fairbanks. Up to that point it had been just about perfect. Hanging out with friends, playing epic outdoor paintball, fishing and clam digging. After a week though, I had to return to work. I’d be home by 8pm. In bed by 10pm, barring any lengthy delays. Turns out, I wouldn’t make it home until 1pm the following day.

After rounding a sweeping corner 11 miles past Talkeetna, a column of black smoke could be seen rising from the highway at the end of a long straight stretch ahead. The closer we got, the worse it all looked. As we stopped, 60 feet short of the scene, the best I could tell, a large tour coach had caught fire, halfway off the embankment on our side of the road, the opposite side of his being a South bound bus. We were the first two on scene, quickly approaching the bus to assess what we could do to help. It was already a hot afternoon for Alaska, -around 85f I suspect- but the growing fire increased the ambient heat considerably.

I still couldn’t understand what happened, however, it was clear everyone needed to be removed from the bus as soon as possible. The passengers, about 40 in all, were in the process of disembarking from an emergency exit near the rear windows, but the driver, still conscience, was pinned within the driver’s area due to the incredible front end damage which ruined any use of the front door. Why was there so much damage, I thought? What did it hit? The fire grew, melting plastic, and increasing the driver’s panic.

By then, a minute or two after arriving, a few others began to show up. My only thoughts at that point centered on getting this man out, or somehow, knocking down the fire. My trucker friend was calling for anyone with fire suppressants to bring them ASAP while jumping back into his rig. Before I knew it I was standing on what was left of the front dash and steering wheel trying to pull the operator out. I was getting burnt wearing only a tank-top and shorts and I could feel my lashes and body hair singeing. There was no way to get him out like that. I was yelling for help, but only one other man would even get close, let alone climb up above the man. Later on, I realized I couldn’t blame them. There was a fear the whole thing was going to blow up, even though a diesel fuel tank probably wouldn’t, few wanted to chance it.

I jumped off, falling into the gravel below just as my friend asked me to help him. He had jack knifed his 18 wheeler behind the bus with chains hooked to it. I needed to crawl under and wrap them around an axle. Fuck! I managed to get one around a strut and another under some hinge. I recall it being cool under the devastated rig. It was then that I put it together in my head. The bus had collided head on with another vehicle with such force, that car had literally collapsed and disappeared beneath the front half of it. I came to this conclusion while crawling from underneath the rear. The fire was coming from underneath and my buddy hoped to pull the bus back onto the highway and clear of the feeder fire.

It was maddening! The bus wouldn’t budge, despite the tremendous power of the truck. After several yanks, the chains snapped, ending that plan. Walking back to the front, I heard a scream and saw several people running away in distress. The man was about to burn alive and I could do nothing. Nobody could.

What haunts me to this day is his eyes. He kept eye contact with me as he begged for help in between the most horrific screams I’ve ever heard. Help me! Please! I told him I tried. Did I say it out loud? I’m not sure. He held on much longer than I would have ever suspected, screaming as he disappeared into the black smoke. Turning around, I realized I was standing much closer than the group of 30 or so people gathered on the road. I was to shocked to do nothing. I began walking around, checking on one elderly couple after another. Broken bones, sprains, some cuts and bruises, but as I asked what I could do, most would say something like, “find someone who is worse, we’ll make it.” It was dramatic, surreal and much more than any 17 year old kid can, or should, handle.

After 45 minutes or so, a couple Troopers began arriving, followed by ambulances, helicopters and fire trucks. The fire was just about out as the main group of emergency vehicles arrived, leaving a blackened, warped shell of a once first class motor coach. I waited it all out laying on the hood of my little car, 50 feet from the bus’ front bumper. My buddy had briefly stopped to ask me if I’d be okay, but nobody else said a word until I was approached by a rescue worker who had just landed. “Are you okay,” she asked? “Yeah, just some minor burns, scrapes and bleeding,” I replied. She looked at me, then around, assessing my proximity to the damage and my too calm demeanor. “Uh huh,” she scoffed, “I’ll be back as soon as I can to talk.”

The smell is what triggered me, 10 years later, while in combat. Like the smell of cheap tequila after getting plastered on the shit as a teen, or that of raspberry iced tea after mistaking your Dad’s spit can for the actual tea, that smell of burnt guts, melted plastic, blood, shit and brains is a treacherous mental assault. To this day I have dreams where the violence is absent, the scene is placid, the breeze cool, but the smell is present and wont go away. Awake I hear those screams, from then and now, but that smell, I’m sure there are some out there that can relate?

On a side note, as an example of how much of a scumbag some folks can be, about 3 months following the whole ordeal, I caught a newspaper article relating to the tragedy. The Governor had given some sort of citizen medal to 5 people at the scene of the crash. It wasn’t the fact that neither I or the truck driver were involved that chapped my ass. It was the fact that these 5 individuals did little to nothing to help at the time as far as I could recall. Two of them were in the group that wouldn’t even get near the bus and one woman might not have been there at all. After returning home I only received one call regarding the incident and it was from an insurance company. Nothing else. Like I wasn’t even there despite it all.

My eyelashes grew back. The scars on my arms and neck faded over the years. My body healed. My brain did not. Who am I to complain though? I later learned the details of the incident. As the bus came out of the corner, headed south, a small Bronco swerved into its lane. Maybe the driver was changing a CD or adjusting a vent? Who knows? At the last moment the bus driver tried to move into the wrong lane to avoid the impact. The Bronco driver reacted the same and it was a direct hit, right in the middle of the highway, both vehicles moving at speeds in excess of 60mph. The Bronco was devastated along with all on board…4 brothers from the same family, aged 11 to 17. A devastation that family couldn’t have comprehended. These boys, along with the bus driver and on board female attendant were killed that day.

I never talked with anyone about it other than to mention it in passing like; “no big deal, I wasn’t involved but it looked bad.” I mentioned it to my mom on the way home from a payphone. She never brought it up. Maybe thought I was exaggerating? That sums up that relationship in 2 sentences I’m afraid. I have considered looking these people up and writing a real story but don’t have the energy or will needed. And that sums me up in 2 more.

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