In An Instant

  • Published
  • By Col. James A. Garrett
  • 37th Training Wing
Col James Garret former commander of the Defense Language Institute, English Language Center here shares his eyewitness account of motorcycle accident as a reminder to all of us on motorcycles or off to practice safety on the roads.

It was a perfect morning for fishing. The temperature was down just a little from the last few days of intense heat, and although it was humid, it wasn't turning into the scorcher we expected. The drive along the river to the shop had been pleasant enough, although I had forgotten just how many people came come out to camp this time of year. Every wide spot along the banks was full of tents and trailers, with families spread all along the river. The traffic along the road was still light, with a few pedestrians and cyclists out for their morning workout. Even the 20 mph speed limit seemed fast at times with the twists and blind turns that often hid pedestrians from sight until the last minute. The motorcycles we saw along the way prompted a discussion between my wife and I about whether or not we would be getting a motorcycle again with my retirement. We've both ridden for years, and only recently found ourselves without a bike.
We started our fishing trip off with a lesson in the shop. The first part of our lesson was in the shop. Discussions about fly fishing equipment, about selecting baits, even a little instruction on how to cast before we made our way down to the river. It's funny the things you realize in hindsight. I never really caught our instructor's name. His style was casual and relaxed, instantly putting my wife and I at ease. We were both looking forward to our time on the river, and eagerly made our way down the hill and around the curve to the crooked path that led us down to the water. Our entry point was about 50 yards upriver from the bridge, and we stood slightly up the slope for a few minutes discussing the water flow and the places that trout would prefer to hide and rest. When we entered the water, it was quiet and peaceful, eerily so, looking back.
Our instructor handed us each a rod and began to instruct us on our first cast. In that moment, life became a collection of instants. The instant we heard the tires, squealing and sliding on pavement. The instant when the squealing stopped. The instant when the sound of metal and Plexiglas against concrete shattered the air. The instant that I saw a man hurtling over the side of the bridge in a direct line toward us while his Yamaha tumbled along the bridge and into the water. The instant black running shoes, black shorts, white t-shirt with large block print were frozen in my memory. The instant I realized there would be no helping him, because also frozen in my memory was the realization that although there were no marks on his body as he traveled through the air, the cloud of blood and tissue surrounding his impossibly misshapen head meant that there would be no rescue. The instant when a young pregnant wife and mother lost her husband, the instant her two daughters lost their father. The instant another young veteran lost his life. In an instant it no longer mattered that he had survived the Army and Afghanistan.
He came to rest about 25 yds down river from us, lying on his back in shallow water, head tilted back, his face perfectly serene and clear of the surface. Our instructor started toward him, and in that instant I knew it was useless. "Don't", I tried to say, but he had already reached his side. He looked down for an instant, then back to me, emotionless and expressionless and said "most of his head is gone." In an instant.
A few minutes later I stood on the bridge as EMS covered his body with a bright yellow tarp. There were smaller yellow cloths along his flight path covering various pieces that should have been in his skull. I heard a paramedic tell his riding buddy that his wife was being transported along with the victim's wife. I heard that his riding partner's vocabulary had been reduced to a single profane utterance, over and over again. In an instant, his wife's life changed, his riding partner's life changed, our instructor's life changed. His didn't. It simply ended. In an instant.
The crash is still being investigated. They were camped along the river. It was just a short ride to check out the road, no need for gear. From the skid, it appeared that he entered the turn too fast, braked hard and slid the bike momentarily before "high siding" and being ejected into the side of the bridge. No helmet. No chance. In an instant. He won't see 22. He won't see his third child born.