Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Survived accident

photo taken 30 minutes after the accident
Last Friday, a little after 6 AM, I was driving a pickup truck in Montecristo national park, situated in the mountains of northern El Salvador, at about 2000 m altitude, when I felt the ground under the front right wheel of the car giving way, causing the car to tilt over into a tumble downslope. In the car at that moment were my girlfriend Roselvy, and Luis, a biologist from the ministry of Environmental Affairs. Riding in the back of the pickup were two local boys helping us with bird banding in the cloud forest of Montecristo. We had started banding the day before, and were on our way to open the mist nets for a second day of bird monitoring.

As the car went into a sideways tumble and I lost control of the wheel, I thought "this is it, we are crashing, we're going to die". I don't remember much more, because I lost consciousness. When I regained consciousness, I found myself lying curled up in a ball on the door of the driver's side. Luis had already climbed out of the vehicle, and Roselvy was climbing out. I asked if everyone was OK, switched off the still running engine, grabbed a few belongings, and also climbed out of the vehicle.

luckily, the car did not tumble very far
Once outside, I saw that one of the boys, Mauricio, was stuck under the rear end of the car, and that the other boy was busy removing rocks to create an exit. Roselvy had left in search of help. Luis, still recovering from another accident he was in about a year ago, could not do much, but when the kid digging out his friend asked me to help lift the car, I did so. I felt some pain in my right eye, and wondered if perhaps some broken glass had entered it. Standing between the car above me and a 30 m slope beneath me, on what later turned out to be a little stone wall that broke the car's fall, I was very afraid and very conscious of the fact that the car, once lifted, could very well continue its fall. This did not happen, however, and Mauricio was able to crawl out. There was no blood, and when we pinched his legs, he was able to feel it.

Roselvy went with him and his family to the hospital, while Luis and I waited at the boy's house. It was difficult for me to wait and do nothing, so when I was asked to go to the scene of the accident and wait there for the insurance people to show up, I set off on foot. I then ran into some park rangers who said it would still take at least three hours for the insurance people to get there. (In the end, they never came.) I decided to walk up to the bird monitoring station and take down the nets - about an hour's walk.

Taking down 16 nets took me another hour. As I walked down the mountain carrying the mist nets, at this time in the pouring rain, it was a little after noon when I got back to the scene of the accident. There I found the police, who approached me, saying "we understand you speak Spanish?" "Yes," I said. "And you were the driver?" "Yes." "Well, I want you to know that nobody is pressing any charges against you, and that none of the persons immediately involved in the accident believe it was your fault."

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that it could have been my fault. Later, I learned that the knee-jerk reaction of the police had been "where is the driver, we need to arrest him". Which is understandable. I guess when they learned more about the particulars of the accident, they abandoned the idea of arresting me. Jaime, the main officer, was friendly, courteous and efficient.

It turned out that none of us - not even Mauricio, who was hurt most - sustained any serious injuries. As I write this, Mauricio is already with his family, after having spent one night in the hospital for observation. This I think is a miracle.

A towing car showed up late afternoon, only to find that the road was too narrow and the wooden bridge too weak to support it. Another solution for towing the car had to be found. Although Roselvy and I were obviously worn out from a very taxing day, SalvaNATURA understandably wanted us to remain on the scene to document the salvage of the vehicle. Around nightfall, the towing company started their operation with tackles attached to trees, and several hours later, the car was retrieved. I noticed only the police had flashlights, while the guys from the towing company were practically working in the dark. I offered them my head lamp, which unfortunately later, when they were done, disappeared. Even the police did not help me get back my head lamp, the only light Roselvy and I had with us.  

With the car back on the road, the next obstacle was a lack of oil: all motor oil had leaked out of the engine, leaving the engine inoperable. The towing company offered to go down the mountain and get oil, for $40. Besides a few singles I had only a $50 bill on me, which I reluctantly handed over, thinking I would probably not see it again, nor receive any change, or a receipt. (Which indeed I didn't.)

When they came back with the motor oil, it was well past midnight. Roselvy and I had tried to sleep a little in the salvaged vehicle, but with one smashed window open, a constant cloud of mosquitoes made that impossible. Inside there was still broken glass everywhere, and we no longer had any light.

The motor oil was put in. We now found the car wouldn't start because the battery was practically empty. I should have taken the car keys out when I switched the engine off, directly after the accident, but somehow I failed to do that. With the keys in the ignition, the automatic door lock had sapped nearly all the battery's juice.

Now, in such cases I would use a jumper cable and start the car off the battery of another car. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that they did not do that, but instead went down again to get another battery. I assume it was because they didn't have a jumper cable, odd as that may sound for a towing company.

All this added a couple more hours to what was now a very long day indeed for Roselvy and myself - nearly 22 hours awake. Eventually, the car started, and we were finally free to leave the site, at 3 AM. We then had to walk 20 minutes to our cabin - no-one was willing or able to take us there.

Yesterday, Roselvy and I went to Santa Ana, where the car was held in storage. An insurance worker took us over to the site, and had us fill out paper work, while he took pictures of the vehicle.

Oscar the insurance guy taking pictures of the vehicle
Tomorrow, we're going back there to retrieve the vehicle. Although more or less operational, it will be transported back to San Salvador. We don't know exactly the full extent of the damage yet, and driving a damaged car can be dangerous.

In the days since the accident, there has been some discussion about safety of the road up to the cloud forest. This road is closed to the general public, and basically open only to biologists from SalvaNATURA, i.e. us, and a family that lives further up the mountain. Tourists are allowed to walk, but not drive that road.

accident scene; note stone wall on left that broke our fall
I think some of the pictures speak for themselves, as far as safety of that road is concerned. The police told us Friday night they almost slipped off the road themselves there. An inspection of the wooden bridge right next to where the accident occurred, revealed serious deferred maintenance issues. This bridge is supported by rocks, but the water has dragged rocks away in places, leaving support unstable.

It seems likely that the days of SalvaNATURA's bird monitoring program up in the cloud forest at Montecristo are over, at least for the time being. Next month we will probably only do bird monitoring in the pine-oak forest section of the park, where the other bird banding station is located and the roads are safe. Still, we think that maintenance of the cloud forest road is necessary, because it is the only access road to the higher parts. What if something happens to a local or a tourist and they need help or rapid transportation to parts below?


Anonymous said...

Wow, glad you are all OK!


Carolyn H said...

Wow, John! That looks awful. It's a miracle no one was seriously hurt. I hope your eye is okay too. Looking at the photos, it's amazing everyone is okay. Take care!

Carolyn H.