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Gathman: Avoiding disaster on the road a split-second decision

Four members South Elgfamily were injured car-tracollisiSaturday evening September 8 2012 Raymond street crossing Elgin. | Dave Gathman ~ Sun-Times

Four members of a South Elgin family were injured in a car-train collision on Saturday evening, September 8, 2012, at the Raymond street crossing in Elgin. | Dave Gathman ~ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 28, 2013 3:44PM

Soldiers say that “there are no atheists in a foxhole.”

When artillery shells and mortar fire are raining down on your head, exactly where each will land — 6 feet away where it will be absolutely harmless? Right inside your hole, where you’ll be blown to bits? — is so random and unpredictable that each infantryman’s life depends very obviously on sheer luck, or the will of God, or maybe some celestial wrestling match between God and the devil.

But after some recent events on the highway, I’m beginning to think that there also should be no atheists in the driver’s seat. As much as traffic crashes are caused by some concrete event ­— most often some dumb mistake by a driver — the role of chance and the passage of seconds often decide whether that mistake-maker lives or dies.

That point hit close to home late one rainy Saturday night last summer. A Courier-News reporter attending a party in Chicago phoned to let me know that, according to Metra, a commuter train had struck a car in Elgin. As the police reporter, I reluctantly put away my own Saturday night plans, such as going to bed by midnight, climbed into my car and drove over to the Raymond Street crossing.

After hiking four blocks past roadblocks and flashing police lights, I beheld what surely looked like a scene of horror. What used to be a car sat alongside the tracks. Everything from its steering wheel forward had been torn off. Some 20 feet away, the car’s engine sat in the street, all by itself, torn away by some terrific impact. Ten feet farther, the transmission also sat in the street.

The cops on the scene told me what had happened: A South Elgin man, his wife and their two young children had been in that car when for some reason — maybe a restless desire to beat the train, more likely just being distracted by something inside the car — the auto had gone around the lowered, flashing crossing gates, bounced off a guard rail and been struck in the side of the engine compartment by a speeding five-car train. The victims already had been taken away.

Judging by the destruction meted out to the car, it looked like a quadruple fatal. But we found out later that the family’s injuries had been relatively minor. The train’s force had been directed at the car’s engine area, missing the space that held the people. But if the car had arrived at that crossing maybe one-tenth of a second sooner, the train would have smashed squarely into the driver’s door, likely killing everybody.

Three weeks ago, we got word that a driver on Route 72 near Gilberts had not been lucky. Twenty-six-year-old Martin Baureis of Johnsburg was driving along Route 72 near Big Timber Road at 10 in the morning when for reasons still unclear to investigators — maybe he was texting a phone message, or reaching to pick up something he had dropped — his Toyota crossed the centerline, went off the left side of the road, then veered back onto the road and smashed head-on into a semi-trailer truck. Police rushing to the scene used fire extinguishers to keep flames from reaching his body. But his injuries were so bad that he died before the next morning.

“Marty was a straight-edge. He would never drive after drinking or using drugs,” a friend of his wrote to me in an email later.

Baureis probably was done in by some harmless little mistake of behavior. But because that happened to take place exactly when it did, he hit an unforgiving semi head-on instead of colliding with a Mini Cooper or simply being able to straighten out his course safely and avoid any kind of crash.

My thoughts go back to three instances in my own past when “there but for the grace of God went I”:

To the time 30 years ago when, day-dreaming as I cruised along Plank Road near Burlington, I suddenly noticed that the crossing gates were lowered and the red signals flashing at the little-traveled railroad crossing just ahead. I made my best effort to ram the brake pedal through the floorboard and skidded noisily to a stop just feet short of the crossing, a second before a speeding freight train roared by.

I think of the time 20 years ago when I was driving along Big Timber Road near where Martin Baureis later would hit that semi. Unfamiliar with that area and not paying close attention, I came across Route 72 without expecting a major highway crossing, and I drove clear through the stop sign there. A semi coming along Route 72 from my right honked angrily as its massive weight going 55 mph missed hitting my car broadside by maybe two seconds.

And I remember one summer afternoon in 2005 when, as my wife Patty and I drove along I-44 on the other side of St. Louis, all traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl. We rolled slowly past a smashed car and a smashed SUV, welded together by horror. They had collided head-on after the car for some reason — maybe its driver had fallen asleep or had a heart attack — had crossed the interstate’s median strip into the oncoming lanes.

The mangled driver of the SUV apparently had been taken away by ambulance. But a red blanket covered the smashed car’s windshield as firefighters and cops continued to do their work. Behind the blanket, no doubt, was at least one person in the car’s front seat who had been killed instantly.

It would be almost two days before we found out that the two dead people behind that blanket had been a woman from Elgin­ — a friend of Patty’s who worked alongside her at Gail Borden Public Library — and that woman’s sister. We had stumbled by chance upon their death scene 350 miles from our common hometown.

We would find out that the sisters had been driving eastward after visiting their elderly parents in Branson, Mo., 200 miles farther down the road. Patty and I had been driving westward at the start of a trip to visit my elderly parents in Branson.

And, Patty and I realized with a shudder, if we had not stopped to eat lunch and had arrived at the crash site half an hour earlier, it might have been our minivan that Patty’s friend had crashed into head-on instead of that SUV.

Why did the split seconds work out so that family on Raymond Street was just injured, Martin Baureis and Patty’s friend got killed, and I was allowed three times to drive away unharmed from equally bad mistakes?

I won’t claim that God saved me because of any special virtue or deservedness. But maybe it does mean that He has some other plans yet for me.

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