Daniel Ruth

A life or death drama on I-275

What if …

This is the stuff that movies are made of — chance encounters, the fates of timing, fleeting moments of unexpected chaos, lives changed in a matter of seconds, inches.

What if we had stayed home Saturday night? What if we had decided to come straight back to Tampa after attending a play in St. Petersburg rather than lingering over a late dinner in a Central Avenue restaurant? What if we had simply waited for the scrum of an interminable line of cars to file out of the Mahaffey Theater parking deck?

What if, what if, what if …

But we had done none of those things. And now it was late and wet and raining as we drove home northbound on I-275, listening to jazz on the radio and marveling how at 84, Hal Holbrook is still touring the country doing his terrific one-man Mark Twain show.

It had been a delightful night, date night, as we drove home. But there was one more drama for us to watch, to participate in.

Just in front of us on the rain-drenched roadway the Ford Focus suddenly spun out of control. And with a semitrailer truck in the right-hand lane, there wasn't much room to maneuver around the careening car.

The Ford bumped off the guard rail and started heading back into the middle lane, my lane.

What if …

Somehow, we missed hitting the Ford by mere inches. The truck drove on, the driver possibly unaware of what had just happened, or more pointedly, what didn't happen.

I pulled onto the shoulder of the roadway just south of Busch Boulevard and ran to the Ford. Inside sat a trembling young woman. "I'm okay! I'm okay! I'm okay," she said as if trying to convince herself.

And she was okay, except now her remarkably undamaged car was facing due south in the face of oncoming traffic.

Another car had stopped, driven by a mid-30ish woman, a nursing assistant at Tampa General Hospital. And then another, a silver Jaguar sedan, driven by a young man, who put on his blinkers and blocked the middle and left-hand lanes, so we could turn the Ford around.

The shaken young woman got out of the Ford and I hopped in to get it headed northbound again and then pulled it off onto the shoulder. Incredibly, the only damage was a broken taillight. Meanwhile the Azalea of Athens and the nursing assistant made sure the young driver truly was okay.

"I need to get my clothes," she said. During all the spinning and bumping and twirling, the Ford's trunk had popped open spilling some of her belongings out onto I-275.

"Uh, that would be, no," the Bombshell of the Balkans advised, make that insisted, as the back-up traffic now began to fly by.

The Jaguar driver had driven off. And for a few moments the nursing assistant, the Sunflower of Sparta and I stood comforting the young driver, who told us she was a nursing student. We were drenched. We were relieved. We were — thankful.

Soon the nursing assistant went on her way. The young driver had begun to calm down. She was fine to drive, she insisted — but slowly.

And then the drama on I-275 was over. Everybody went their way. The Jaguar driver was gone. The nursing assistant was gone. Soon we were gone. And this young woman would eventually make her way home, too, perhaps with a story to tell.

But for a brief, intense, no more than 15-minute one-act real-life play, four lives came together on a dank night to lend a hand to a stranger and just as quickly parted. No questions asked. No names exchanged. Lives touched in a moment of intensity, now drifted away in anonymity.

Seconds. Inches. The difference between a brief encounter over and done with and something far more horrendous, perhaps lives lost, perhaps serious damage, perhaps a line of vehicles backed up for miles and hours.

I-275 isn't just a road. It is a stage for melodramas.

What if …

Days later a friend was late for an appointment, very late.

At last she arrived exasperated, frustrated. On the way to our meeting she had found herself trapped in a huge traffic jam southbound on I-275. As it turned out three different accidents had clogged the roadway, eventually forcing her to get off at an earlier exit, where she again found herself in a sea of cars, all trying to escape the mess.

Seconds. Inches. Fate. Luck.

What if, what if, what if …

A life or death drama on I-275 01/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 6:15pm]

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