The Victim Who Survived

By Jason Cisper

No one is exactly certain what brought 19-year-old Christina Williams' 1990 Oldsmobile coupe in the path of Ray Shankle's 1997 Western Star Constellation last March. The two vehicles collided on state Rt. 3 in Liberty, ME, that night.

Christina's car showed no signs of attempting to swerve back into her lane. There was no indication that she tried to slow down or stop. Her life ended tragically as a result of the ensuing crash. Ray avoided injury, but his life changed drastically. Although Ray was cleared of any fault, he continues to carry with him what every trucker fears–the memory of being involved in a fatal accident. But Ray is convinced that the care and support he was shown that night has helped him to move forward.

"The last 30 to 40 feet were in stop motion, like a strobe light," OOIDA member Ray Shankle recalls of his accident on March 17. "It was just reaction. For a lot of years I thought I could just steer around the stuff."

But when 19-year-old Christina M. Williams' car crossed the center lane and drove into the path of Ray's 1997 Western Star that night, there was nowhere for him to go.

"I knew whoever was in the car wasn't going to make it," Ray says, pausing from time to time as he recalls the event. "When the truck stopped moving, I grabbed my cell phone and called 911. I probably was screaming. I don't know. The 911 operator was trying to calm me down. I remember thinking, ‘They're dead. They've got to be.'"

The operator asked Ray to go up to the wreckage and look inside the car. He saw one person inside. "She was still breathing," he says. "I had a feeling she was not long for this world."

He was told to check the girl's pulse, but Ray says he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Luckily, a nurse who was driving by the scene of the accident had stopped to assist. She took the phone from Ray, who was hysterical.

Ray, 54, has been driving a truck since 1967. He says he has always liked operating a truck, but a lack of interest in mechanics initially kept him from becoming an owner-operator. After deciding that it would be just as cost effective to rely on a professional to fix his truck as it would to fix it himself, Ray bought his first truck. Since then, he has traveled throughout the continental U.S. and five Canadian provinces. This was his first serious accident. But he'd seen them before.

Ray was in Virginia some years ago when he came upon the scene of a fatal crash involving a pickup truck and a flatbed. He remembers seeing the trucker sitting sideways in his cabover Freightliner, facing the street in a daze. As police officers and highway patrol officers surveyed the scene, the driver remained alone and visibly distressed. Ray says there was no one to offer him any sort of consolation. Although surrounded by people, he went through the ordeal alone.

"That guy had the weight of the world on his shoulders," he says. "He was going through hell."

On March 17, Ray had found himself in a similar situation. But he says the cloud that was cast over the scene that night "had a silver lining."

Minutes after the accident, police and fire units began to arrive on the scene. Sgt. Eugene Rega of the Waldo County Sheriff's office was the first to confront Ray. The sergeant began calming him almost immediately. Rega helped locate Ray's traveling partner, Suzie (his "pedigree love mutt"), who was shaken up but uninjured.

He and the other troopers pointed out that Ray's truck was nearly in the ditch, indicating that he'd done his best to move out of Christina's path. They informed Ray that her car showed no sign of turned wheels or braking. The preliminary indications were that Ray had been in an unavoidable accident.

"Sgt. Rega was very reassuring," Ray says. "He was a positive force. What better time to start the healing than right there at the scene."

Det. Sgt. Gary Boynton, who was assisting Rega, took Ray to the police station for a mandatory Breathalyzer test. While Ray filled out the necessary documents, Boynton kept Suzie calmed with dog biscuits. "She had the run of the building," Ray says, with a half-hearted chuckle.

"All of those people that helped me, they're heroes. I'm a real lucky guy.  The concern and compassion they showed me should be made know.."

Boynton says that at the time, he did his best to put Ray's mind at ease, noting that he had never received any type of training for such an event.

"You just have to tell it from the heart and console someone like you would want to be consoled," Boynton says. "He was miles from home and didn't know anybody. In a tragedy like this, it is up to those who are around at the time of the accident to offer some assurance."

Ray's next stop was the Waldo County General Hospital, where he had blood drawn for testing (also mandatory). It was here that Ray learned that Christina had not survived the accident.

"They were cleaning up the gurney when we got there," Ray says softly. "The doctor said they pulled out a lot of stops, but they couldn't save her. The doctor said that it was the head and chest injuries that took her."

According to Frank Hannon, chief operating officer for Waldo County Hospital, the post-accident counseling that a person receives while he/she is in the hospital is a large step toward recovery. Although Ray was not required to stay at the hospital (he had no injuries), any on-the-spot help he received was beneficial.

Hannon points out that the hospital does provide various types of counseling for such traumatic events. Additionally, many counselors are on-call, and available for help at all hours of the day. He says that because Christina was taken to the same hospital, the emergency room professionals knew what happened and were able to deal with the situation appropriately.

"There's no question that it's important," Hannon says. "We train our people to look for someone who is upset, and probably initiate some type of ‘what can we do for you' conversation."

Because it was getting late, Boynton found a room for Ray and Suzie at the Harbor Inn in Belfast. Officer Mike Rollerson, a Liberty police officer, drove them to the hotel, and picked them up the next day to survey the damage to Ray's truck.

Ray says he was initially apprehensive when he was dropped off at the Harbor Inn. After all, being alone after such a tragedy could make for a sleepless night. But owners Mike and Jamie Schnetzer, as well as the hotel staff, proved to be Ray's "angels" in a time when he says he needed them.

"The girls at the front desk, Darlene, Debbie and Christy, they mothered me something fierce," he says. "They were there if I needed to talk. The whole staff was kind. Even the maids were concerned about me. I think the folks at the hotel did the most for me, because they had the most access to me."

During his brief stay, Ray was hardly alone. Boynton had arranged for Warren Dewersome, a local jail chaplain, to pay Ray a visit. He received numerous phone calls, and he says the staff was always checking in on him. When it came time for him to return to his home in Minnesota, Ray admits he "hated to leave, in a way."

Lt. Christopher Birge of Liberty Fire and Rescue sent a letter to Ray several days after the accident, letting him know that he was still in their thoughts and their prayers.

"At a recent stress debriefing of the incident one of the doctors from (the hospital) was present and expressed his concern for ‘a victim that we had not been talking about,'" Birge wrote. "He had wished that you could have been there with us and mentioned talking with you and thinking of you as you returned alone to your hotel room that night. Be assured that all of us involved have thought of you and your family and hope that you are able to handle this and move on."

As of April, Ray was still at his home in Deerwood, MN. He had spent the last several weeks with his family, working on some projects around the house. He'd hooked up a fax machine he says he's had for quite some time but never used. He was learning a little about the Internet, and how to use e-mail. And he says he is continually trying to move forward, although he admits that since the accident, his life has "really been an emotional circus ride." He can't watch the real-life emergency room programs on television without it "having an effect."

But Ray says he will eventually get back on the road. "If I could walk away from it, I would," he says. "But I don't have anything else I could do."

He says he will be ready when the time comes, however. His carrier, Schanno Transport, has been supportive. When he returned home, they passed on a stress management hotline number for Ray to call. He says that he did well on their stress test, and was told that he probably didn't need their help. This wasn't a surprise to him.

"I had therapy from the very beginning," he says. "I didn't have to wait to get help back in Minnesota. All of those people that helped me, they're heroes. I'm a real lucky guy. The concern and compassion they showed me should be made known."

Although Ray was cleared of any charges and found to be fault-free in the accident, he says that without the help from all those involved, he might not be recovering as well. He notes that knowing he wasn't at fault wasn't any consolation, but the person-to-person contact has worked magic for him.

"That goes a long way in helping you feel better," he says. "Even when a driver is at fault, he still needs some help. Sometimes (people) have a lapse in judgment. If an office worker has a lapse, they get out the ‘White Out.' With us, it's much, much worse. But no (trucker) ever wants to hurt anybody. An accident is something that happens when it's not on purpose."