We were driving home from the city after going to dinner with friends and then attending a concert of the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with Martin Fröst on the clarinet.
It was a sublime evening and we were happy driving home to Wonthaggi on empty roads. When we were almost at the Phillip Island turn-off – in other words almost home – a van driven by two kids, who must have been arguing about what music to put on, came out of a side road. We saw them and thought they were stopping, which made sense because we were on a highway going at 100km/h and they were on a side road at a stop sign. But they came out right in front of us and we could not stop or avoid them. I don’t believe they ever saw us.
Of course Larry stomped on the brakes but we have no idea how fast we were going when we hit them. I remember not screaming but yelling. I remember seeing the side of the van as it seemed to come up to us and become our entire space. I remember the sound of the impact. I remember a primal sense of horror, but no sense that we were about to die. Which we would have done if we had not been driving a newish Hyundai i30. Neither of us remembers the airbags exploding on impact, but I distinctly remember being thrown back into my seat rather than moving forward. I remember a huge roaring sound upon impact, which must have been the detonators exploding in the air bags as much as the impact. The bags did their job and then immediately deflated or popped or something, just as they were supposed to do.
Larry and I were left sitting on our seats with a completely crushed car all around us. The first thing I said when I saw the airbags hanging limp and pathetic was, “Oh they didn’t work”. We were very confused. Of course they worked. They exploded just as they should; the steering wheel column collapsed; the motor dropped out of its position so it would not come through the chassis; not one window broke. We were encased in a completely secure bubble made of steel, but the car was a write-off. The air bags had been filled with corn-starch to keep them supple and working and so the car was filled with floating dust from the flour, which we thought was smoke. I said, “Larry, we’ve got to get out of here.” We had to push hard on them, but the doors miraculously opened. The van we hit had flipped twice and was on its side. Two boys slowly emerged from the top window. They said they were not hurt, but they were certainly long stretches of misery. We later found out that the boy driving had only had his licence for eleven hours. So it was a crash that should have had four fatalities, but all four of us walked away.
As everyone who has been in an accident says, time stretches out and then compacts. It seemed like a guy with a large flashlight was at the scene in an instant. He actually helped me open my door. Maybe we had sat there in a daze for a while before we could take in what had happened, but they say we were not concussed. We had definitely been thrown around and were bruised and would become very stiff and uncomfortable, partly due to our age but mostly to do with the trauma of impact. The police and ambulance arrived quickly – remember this is in the middle of nowhere, an empty stretch of road, no lights, just stars and moon. So, I don’t really know how quickly. Two cars came along and stopped to see what they could do. An ambulance took Larry and me away.
Because it was a “100km/h accident”, they immediately put collars round our necks, made us lie flat on our backs and took us back to the city to a hospital that specialises in road trauma. Over three days they put us through ultra-sound, x-rays, CT scans and MRI scans to ensure the doctors that we were all right. They also doped us to the eyeballs. I have a sprained ankle and Larry has a deep bruise on his spine that will keep him quiet for a while. No broken bones, only soft tissue aches and pains.
We will never again drive those roads in the confidence that we are completely in control. That’s a good thing. However, we will always have confidence in the Hyundai. It is a miracle we are alive.
Now we have to deal with the police, the insurance guys and get a new car. The way they arrange things here with insurance means the ambulance and hospital cost us nothing. Of course, we had to put up with public wards in a hospital that was more like a war zone than anything. I guess, however, if there is one place on earth to have an accident, it is Australia.
So, I hope I have answered all your questions, probably more questions than you would have asked. Damon and Julian were there at the hospital as was our old friend, Julie, who drove me home last night and has gone back to bring Larry home today. She will stay with us for a while. Julian and Georgia will come and stay for two days on Monday. Damon told me this morning that he was so shocked when he heard what we had been through and when he saw us in hospital not looking our best, that he couldn’t work with any energy the next day. I think we will be sitting around like stunned mullets for few days before we get functioning again.
Well, it has been an experience and every writer needs experience. It brought me close to my own mortality, but I can’t deal with those thoughts yet … or ever.
Carolyn (Lyn) Landon is a Wonthaggi writer. She is working on a biography of the botanical artist Celia Rosser.