By Charlie Morasch, staff writer
“On behalf of my husband, myself and family I would like to let you know that there is no way that our family hold any personal malice whatsoever toward you about the accident. There are times in our lives when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 19, both yourself and Greg unfortunately had that moment. We’re sure you must have and probably still are going through personal hell…”
Inside his bottom dresser drawer Joel Robinson keeps clothes, and a sizable piece of his heart.
In that drawer, Joel, a 64-year-old OOIDA life member from Salmon Arm, British Columbia, keeps a folded-up story he wrote shortly after his wreck July 19, 1989. Along with the story is a letter from the parents of a young man named Greg with whom Robinson will be forever linked.
That July 1989 day, Joel says, changed both him and a family of strangers forever, when a young man driving a motorcycle pulled out in front of Joel’s truck in Alberta and died at the scene.
Regardless of the fact that the death wasn’t because of any mistake he made, Joel describes his memories of that day as a “festering gut wound.” He has battled depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and feelings of guilt ever since.
Every day, truck drivers are changing lanes, slowing down or standing on the brakes to avoid collisions. Sometimes, unfortunately regardless of a truck driver’s actions, there are pedestrians or passenger-vehicle drivers who make mistakes that cause a fatal wreck and even others who make conscious decisions that result in suicide.
Through no fault of their own, these truckers have taken on the heavy burden of a fatal wreck.
In the blink of an eye, life-altering heaviness washed over each of these drivers. Some knew immediately they were already different. For others, it took time.
In the hours, days and years since their tragedies, they’ve dealt with sadness, anger, and even the post-traumatic stress common among war veterans and emergency responders.
Some drivers took time off to mow grass, write poetry or continue education, while others needed to work the next day.
No matter the circumstances, each faced a simple reality:
“At the end of the day – someone lost their life,” Joel said. “It doesn’t matter how you look at it; there was a loss of life. Someone has to carry that.”
• • •
Nothing can prepare a driver for a fatal wreck, particularly if details about why the fatality happened are murky.
Wayne Dalrymple is an OOIDA Life Member from upstate New York with 3.5 million safe miles.
Wayne was hauling 80,000 pounds of rock salt near State University of New York at Geneseo on Nov. 5, 2008, when tragedy struck.
A 19-year-old female student at the university was walking parallel with traffic, 10 feet away from the road when she suddenly turned and walked into the road and in front of Wayne’s truck, locking eyes with him as he slammed on the brakes.
Wayne ended up stopped sideways. “If she’d stopped walking she would have lived,” he said.
“I never lost eye contact with her until she went past my passenger door,” Wayne said. “She had just a determined look – a very determined look. There was no smile, no frown. Just, I’m going to do this.”
According to Geneseo Police Chief Eric Osganian, the official cause of death for the woman, Lindsay Matthews, is “fatal pedestrian accident.”
Some days, Wayne said, he can’t seem to stop seeing the young woman’s face.
“That makes it a rough day,” he said.
For Wayne, the woman’s death didn’t affect only him. The Dalrymples – a close family – banded together to endure the 2008 tragedy. They have remained close during the months and years since.
“It broke the heart of my kids and grandkids because they were watching me go through such a hard time,” Wayne said. “It was especially hard on my wife. We’ve been through a lot in 45 years, but that really hurt her because she knew how close I was to my daughter and granddaughters.”
Wayne eventually lost his job after the woman’s family attempted to sue Wayne’s employer over her death. For legal reasons, he was told to avoid contact with her family.
“This last year it’s been bothering me. I want to go see them,” Wayne said. “In the worst way I want to go talk to them. Just to say, ‘Hey, I don’t understand this but I can sympathize.’ I went through that accident a thousand times in my head, and there was nothing I could figure out for myself that I could have done different – except not be there.”
Unexpectedly, the days after the wreck also led to some positives, Wayne said.
“I started receiving sympathy cards in the mail from people I hadn’t heard from since high school,” Wayne said. “All of a sudden I’m hearing from people I hadn’t seen in 45 years. It was amazing the people that reached out to me, which helped.”
Despite the wave of emotion Wayne felt the day of the tragedy, he took only the afternoon off. The next day, he was back behind the wheel.
“Everybody said I should take time. But, you know, you fall off the horse. For me I needed to get right back to it,” Wayne said. “I went right back to work the next day.”
Wayne now drives school buses. He was surprised during the application process that “fatal accident” is permanently on his record.
“I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
He has asked OOIDA to volunteer his personal contact information to any OOIDA member who survives a fatal wreck.
“Something like this affects a lot of people,” Wayne said. “The person we hit is dead, but we were victims, too.”
• • •
“March 17, 1999,” Ray says from his Yuma, AZ, home, before you finish asking him when the wreck happened.
On that day, Ray Shankle, an OOIDA life member, was headed up a two-lane road hill in Liberty, ME, when he noticed a dark sedan headed the other direction was drifting into his lane. As the car approached, Ray kept thinking the driver would realize the mistake and return to the other lane. As the sedan approached, Ray steered his truck into the ditch.
Despite Ray’s actions to avoid the collision, the sedan slammed into the truck and trailer.
Ray was attended to by several EMT workers and law enforcement officers of the tight-knit Liberty community who knew the victim and her family. The strangers of the Liberty, ME-area, however, treated Ray with gentle respect and even deliberate kindness.
Sergeant Eugene Rega of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office was the first officer to find Ray at the wreck.
“Sergeant Rega – when he got on the scene – he said, ‘Don’t you worry about this. You weren’t responsible for this.’ I second-guess myself a lot, and I think I maybe could have done something different. But he seemed to think it was all right.”
Emergency responders and medical workers showed Ray dignity as he underwent mandatory post-crash blood tests.
The driver of the sedan, 19-year-old Christina Williams, died later at the hospital.
Police later sent a jail chaplain to check on him at his hotel, where a hotel worker told Ray to “make sure you get something to eat.”
“They just opened their hearts and themselves during a strange situation,” Ray said. “There were a lot of little things that I was fortunate to receive up there. That’s treatment that a lot of guys probably don’t get after a wreck.”
Ray also credited his family and Rita, his wife of 32 years, for his ability to slowly heal.
Ray watches news coverage that involves truck-car wrecks. He shakes his head when he sees a fatality in which the reporter writes “the trucker was not hurt.”
“They say, ‘The trucker was not injured,’ ” Ray says. “Well, you might not have any physical injuries, but that driver has a helluva load on his shoulders no matter whose fault it is. He was behind the wheel of an instrument of death. No matter what, he is not unscathed.”
After retiring from trucking, Ray says he continues to stress every time a driver drifts near his traffic lane. He suggests drivers involved in wrecks open up to others and devote time to processing the events.
“You gotta deal with this stuff,” he said. “You can’t just drop out.”
• • •
Joel Robinson spent a day considering whether he’d return Land Line’s phone call to discuss his wreck – a life-changing event that prompted him to leave trucking, and undergo treatment for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because it may help others, he decided to talk about that July 1989 day, and what he’s experienced since.
Joel was leaving Calgary, Alberta, when he approached a major road’s large intersection with an arterial road where a motorcyclist was stopped. Inexplicably, almost as if he didn’t see Joel’s truck, the motorcyclist pulled out.
“It was a very poorly constructed intersection,” Joel says matter-of-factly, with a hint of anger still present.
The young man disappeared underneath the truck, and died from injuries.
Later, Joel learned the young man’s name was Greg.
Eventually, Joel was able to speak with Greg’s family. For that, he’s thankful. Their understanding helped him.
“I got to meet his dad,” Joel said. “I got an invitation to meet the family, and there was no blame from them – which was very gratifying.”
During his time away from the road, Joel faced his feelings and emotions head-on. He met with a therapist who wanted to prescribe him drugs to treat depression. Joel admits he had suicidal thoughts, but he refused to go on medication.
Instead, Joel said he accepted the PTSD diagnosis and took a few years off from driving. He earned the Canadian equivalent of a GED. Then he threw himself into projects that he previously hadn’t taken time for.
“Take a deep breath; there are people relying on you,” Joel said, recalling his thoughts at the time. Soon, he began taking classes, writing poetry and working in his garden. He volunteered to help prepare meals at an annual festival, and became involved with Trucker Buddy.
Calling himself “semi-retired,” Joel said he has pursued increased highway safety through his memberships in OOIDA and OBAC, and as member-director of the North America Trucker’s Guild.
“The way post-traumatic stress works, it’s something that never goes away,” Joel said. “In my case, it’s like having a festering gut wound. It will heal, but every time you look in the mirror you can see it. Every once in a while it starts to fester. There’s nothing you can do.”
Joel discovered that Greg worked at a business on Emerald Lake in the Canadian Rockies. Joel and his wife took a day and drove to the lake, parked and spent time taking in the quiet breeze and tree-lined mountains.
“It was just gorgeous. The water was pristine,” Joel said. “You can see 30 feet to the bottom.”
Sometimes still today he wonders why he was the one behind the wheel when Greg died.
Greg’s parents went to great lengths to absolve him of guilt.
“Please remember that we will never feel it was anyone’s fault,” they said in that letter written shortly after Greg’s death. “It just happened. If you ever feel like speaking or writing to us, please do.”
In that dresser drawer, Joel keeps a cherished story he wrote during an English class following the wreck. Called “Loss of Innocence,” the two-page essay describes in vivid detail the physical realities of the wreck, and the effect it had on his heart.
For the first time in several years, Joel unfolded the story and mailed a copy to Land Line’s office. The poem is filled with detail and raw emotion, as revealed in this excerpt:
Without checking, he moved.
At that moment in time, the hurt, color of the event, and bitterness were driven like a long jagged knife, deep into my soul. I remembered he looked like a rag doll, as he bounced off, and disappeared under the truck. … Through the murk I could see the traffic had stopped, and people were running toward the wreck.
A numb feeling set in. I hoped in vain that the boy was alive.
“Why me? I was a good driver.”
“I look at life a little bit differently now,” Joel said of that day. “I don’t think it will ever go away.”
Later, he tucked the letter and his story back into the drawer.