FROM A distance, we thought luggage had spilled out of the overturned van, all over the shoulder of Interstate 95 near Columbia, last Sunday morning.
We were not terribly concerned, except that the traffic slowing ahead might keep us from getting to our destination on time. The bubbly, shallow sounds of the Beach Boys -- "Rev it up, rev it up" -- blared from the CD player. Our 3 1/2 -year-old bounced and sang along.
Then we saw that it was not luggage that littered the road. "They're all children," my husband said. A teen-ager sprawled here; a boy and a little girl -- she had pigtails, I think -- face down on the pavement there. Impossible to tell if they were alive. Another boy, clearly dazed, sat up and rubbed his elbow. Later, news reports told us the five children and three adults in that van had been on their way from Philadelphia to vacation in Myrtle Beach. In the moments just after the crash, amid the confusion before the police arrived, we knew only that there were children everywhere where none should have been.
We did not know what to do. Not having witnessed the crash itself, we had nothing to offer police. Driving on toward a happy family gathering felt obscene, but many other motorists had already stopped and apparently had no more idea how to help than we did. Some stood, horrified, on the side of the road; others ran back and forth across the highway.
I dialed 911 from the car phone in case someone had not done so already. We heard sirens in the distance as our car rolled southward. Then we wept.
By Friday, three members of that family were dead. Reporters have long since moved on to other stories, and my own memory of the crash scene has started to blur a bit. I am glad of that. None of us would stay sane for long if time or distance did not dull the pain of other people's troubles -- if every terrorist bombing, downtown shooting or freak accident damaged us as if it happened to one of our own.
Still, it is right that something in us wants to stop and pause and glean some lesson from moments of darkness. We in the news business watch folks do this all the time. Over the past 15 years in newspapers, I have heard the loved ones of victims of car wrecks, airplane crashes, murders, suicides and wars promise to make some good come out of death, to learn something from it, to let it transform their lives in some positive way.
Sometimes the change manifests itself in the form of a crusade against whatever culprit or error contributed to the tragedy. The father of a young Joppatowne soldier killed in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie threw himself into the quest to prosecute the terrorists who blew up the plane. A Severna Park family whose son was shot to death by a stranger over a pen became gun control activists. The father of a little Baltimore girl killed by an air bag in his car started a group to warn that those safety devices are dangerous to young children. The mothers of two Maryland babies who recently suffocated when their day care provider put them to sleep on too-soft bedding are pushing for more frequent day care inspections.
Comfort and often genuine value come from the search for justice and preventions. What I saw last Sunday is a testament to the importance of seat belts and child-safety seats; only one of the victims was restrained, and he escaped with minor injuries.
The lessons of such disasters are not merely tangible, however. They change the way we look at the world, at least they should. They make us realize life isn't a toy; it's not to be taken for granted. If that is a cliche, it is one that deserves repeating.
We need to be more careful with our lives, to resist letting the harried pace of our existence overwhelm the resolutions that follow a brush with something terrible.
We need to slow down, buckle up, keep that annual appointment with the doctor and learn to appreciate the kind of day marked by nothing more extraordinary than an uneventful trip accompanied by familiar tunes and the chatter of children.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun. This is her last column before a maternity leave of several months.
Pub Date: 8/16/98