A traffic accident on Harris Island, Scotland.
I am still not sure what made me look up at that particular moment. I guess something must have caught my eye. With more than 40 years driving experience under your seat belt, you remain alert even when you are admiring the broad, rugged landscapes of Harris Island.
But look up, I did. Just in time to see the large white SUV, which was the second car behind me, pull out onto the other side of the road to overtake. At the same moment, the car directly behind me also pulled out and accelerated rapidly.
“No! Mate! No!” I shouted at the silver car “Don’t!”
The small silver car slammed into the side of the larger, white car, and became airborne sailing over the top of the white car, rolling over and over again. It dropped into a gully next to the road. I didn’t see it hit the ground, but when I did see where it had come to rest, I could tell from the dug-up field, that it had skated on its roof across the rock-studded grass. The white car spun on its wheels and ended up facing the right way in the correct lane, front tyre punctured, passenger side caved in, airbags fully deployed
It all happened in a fraction of a second, but as people say, it seemed as if it was in slow motion. Every nanosecond etched on my mind.
I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my phone from the charger. I opened the boot of the car and fished out my first kit. The one I had brought in case I sprained my ankle while hiking.
As I jabbed 999 on the phone’s keyboard, I thought to myself “I don’t have enough Bandaids for this accident. Those people are dead for sure.”
“Ambulance, Fire or Police?” the calm female voice said at the other end of the line.
“Ambulance and Police,” I said, already fumbling with my phone to put it on loudspeaker, so I could use the Emergency App to give my location.
“Which one first?”
“Ambulance, I would say. I have just witnessed a serious road crash. My location is XYZ”, and I gave my coordinates, reading from the screen.
I ran down the hill, the tiny first aid kit tucked under my arm.
I got to the white car first.
“Are you hurt? Any injuries?”
“No,” they both said, “We are OK, just a bit shaky.”
“Stay in the car,” I said, “I have called an ambulance.”
I turned to see a young man and woman crawling out of the silver car and watched incredulously, as they scrambled up the embankment.
“Come! Sit!” I said, sizing up their injuries. Scratched hands from the broken glass. A large graze on his temple. Cuts to her shins and shredded tights. Both had dilated pupils and were rambling on about what had happened.
“I just didn’t see him!” the young man said.
They were in shock.
I passed my assessment on to the calm lady who was still on the other end of the phone.
“I’ll send two ambulances,” she said. “it will be a while.”
I pulled out a gauze pad from my kit and told the girl to hold it on the largest cut on her shin. The blood flowing freely from the cut, making it look more gruesome than it was.
“Press hard with this,” I said, “what’s your name?”
“Where are you hurt, Joanna? Is it ok if I touch you to see if you have any injuries?
“My back and neck are really sore.”
“I imagine they are! Can you just stay really still for me?” I draped my one, silver blanket over her shaking body and asked her to breathe with me. “Nice deep breaths Joanna… Slow down, slow down… you’ll be Ok. The ambulance is on its way.”
By this stage, some other people had begun to pull up.
“Do you need help?”
“Yes, I do! Do you have a blanket?
The Dutchman nods.
“Get it, and wrap this fellow up. He needs to stay warm.”
“What’s your name, mate?” I asked the dazed man.
“You’ve got a bit of a bump on your head there John! Can I have a look at it?”
I took another piece of gauze from the meagre first aid kit and pressed it against his bleeding head.
“Can I help? another voice said from the crowd. “I am a navy medic.”
“Take over here, mate, you can do a better job than me!”
“No, you seem to have it under control.” He walked away and melted back into the crowd.
“HANG ON!!” I thought, “Is there no one here better equipped than me to deal with this? Here I am on the other side of the world in a foreign country being a very bossy Australian telling Scottish people what to do?? Is there no-one?”
It would seem I was it.
The Uncle of the White Car Man (who I now knew was Alex) turned up at my side. They had called him straight after the crash.
“You need help,” he said. Not a question but a statement.
Thank god, another person willing to lead. “Can you stop the traffic up there. We don’t want to get run over ourselves.”
There was no verge, and we were sitting right on the road.
The traffic was calm and patient. A few people got out to look at what was happening and then returned to their cars. There were offers of food and water for the injured.
“No,” I said “You don’t know if they are going to need surgery. Let’s wait for the ambo’s”.
The quizzical looks reminded me that abbreviating a word and adding an O was a uniquely Australian practice.
We waited. I checked on the two in the SUV again. They were still shaky but definitely uninjured.
My phone rang.
“Harris Police here, can you tell me what has happened?”
“Road crash at (co-ordinates). No major injuries. The traffic is building up.”
All matter of fact, as if I do this every day.
“We’ll be there as soon as we can, but we are already dealing with another matter at the other end of the island.”
It seemed like an episode of Shetland. The majestic scenery was laid out before me. The rocky outcrops, the soaring birds, the inquisitive bystanders. The grey, scudding clouds.
More time elapsed. perhaps 30 minutes, and then the welcome wail of a siren. One ambulance had arrived.
“Ok,” the green-clad fellow said, “What’s going on here?”
“Traffic accident, four people involved the two in the white car are a bit shaky but otherwise appear to be OK. These two, John and Joanna, crawled out of that car (the ambo lets out a long low whistle) and up the hill. They have some superficial injuries (pointing to their legs and hands) but are both complaining of headache, backache and a sore neck. They have been conscious and lucid the whole time. Their breathing has steadied, and they seem to be able to move freely, but I have asked them to stay still. Joanna is the most distressed, but I am concerned about his contusion on John’s forehead.”
“Ah hah…” he said slowly as he put on his gloves.
Shit! No gloves! I forgot to put mine on!!
“How long ago?”
“About 40 minutes?
“Hmm ok. Can you just hold John’s head still while I have a look.”
I cradled John’s head in the way I had been shown in the advanced first aid course I had done.
The paramedic looked at me and said: “Hmmm you know what to do… are you a first responder?”
First responder? I smiled and as a million thoughts went through my head as to how an Australian holidaying in Scotland had taken charge of a traffic accident, was well, not a first responder per se, but certainly a well trained NSW SES volunteer. How do you describe what the NSW SES is? Tick tock tick tock …it all flicked through my mind, and I decided on
“Well, no, not exactly. I am a volunteer in the emergency services in Australia. I have had some advanced training in this sort of thing.”
That would do for the time being. Another ambulance crew turned up. The paramedics decided to treat John and Joanna as having potential spinal injuries, which meant very cautious handling. I helped them strap the two onto spinal boards, and lift them onto the ambulance.
As they departed, I looked at the long, long queues of traffic stretching back on both sides of the road. The white car was still in the middle of the lane, immobile, blocking the traffic. The once patient drivers beginning to get impatient as the ambulance vanished over the hill. To me, it seemed like another accident waiting to happen, as people began to pull out willy-nilly, trying to get past.
In rapid-fire, I said to the Uncle “Contra-flow traffic, ten cars each way. You let ten cars past and then stop them, and then I‘ll let ten go from my end. Do that until we finish. Hold up your hand like this (the stop signal) and raise your other hand to me when you are ready to change over,” I demonstrated a beckoning signal.
I went up the road and waved the first car on. It didn’t move. An older woman in the driver’s seat was slumped over the wheel.
“Oh my god,” I thought, “don’t tell me she’s had a heart attack while we’ve been waiting? And the ambulance has just left!”
I walked gingerly up to her car and tapped on the window. She woke up, startled. I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding.
“Move on please ma’am.”
For the next 15 minutes, we directed the traffic. I cursed the fact that I was dressed all in black and had no hi-vis, no glowing traffic wand. Not like in the training I had done.
The police rang again. They’d be there soon.
After 2 hours, they did finally arrive. The queues of traffic had gone, the ambulance had taken John and Joanna away. Alex (the driver of the white car) had calmed down, and his Aunty was now just plain angry that the police had taken so long to get there. The Uncle and I were congratulating each other on what a fantastic job we had done with the traffic. It seemed so peaceful.
The police officer began to get my details.
“Hang on a minute,” she said. “I just have to check on my colleague”. He was striding down the road, fishing something out of his pocket.
“It was his first day yesterday.” Eye roll “I just have to make sure he does not breathalyse them without me as a witness.”
She came back to me 20 minutes later and started to retake my statement.
It was cold. The wind had picked up, and I was busting to go to the toilet. While caught up in the middle of the emergency, I had stayed calm and in control. The only thing I could think of now was not wetting my pants in front of this police officer.
I told her I needed to go.
“Go down the road to the Youth Centre. It’s just around the bend here. Tell them the Police sent you. They’ll let you use their loo. Wait for us there.”
“Right yeah sure,” I thought. But sure enough I said the police had sent me, they let me use their loo and now more comfortable, I sat on the car bonnet and waited. Another 15 minutes later, the Police pulled up at the Youth Centre, and I gave them my statement.
It was now three and a half hours since I had looked in that rear-view mirror and I was finally on my way again. Cold, hungry and thirsty. However, my overwhelming emotion was pride! I had done good! I had stayed calm. I had been useful! I had used the training I had been given through the NSW State Emergency Service to render first aid and direct traffic. I might be a bossy Aussie, but who bloody cares! On this day, at that moment, I was the right person at the right time, and I helped people. Really, really helped them.
Punch the air, Old Chook! Today you were truly invincible and very visible!
The NSW SES is a volunteer organisation which has jurisdiction over storm and flood events in New South Wales, Australia. In some rural units, they also look after road crashes. I have been an SES member for nearly 5 years. I have been trained in many aspects of emergency management. You can read about the SES here. It’s a government-funded body and one of the things I really love about Australia. We look after each other!