Sophia Pierro recounts a car accident on Highway 16
Ogdensburg, New York was often a destination for my family in the ’90s. Not much more than a strip mall with a K-Mart and a Price Chopper, it was the closest US city we could get to. Though Ottawa was quite the cosmopolitan town in 1991, it lacked certain crucial things like Breyer’s ice cream and low taxes on goods and services. So, on a reasonably warm day in mid-August, my father took my little five-year-old brother and me on the quick and windy road trip across the Saint Lawrence to stock up on deals deals deals from America, leaving my mother with some much-needed peace and quiet.
Once our car was filled with well-priced meat, vanilla bean ice cream, and cheap, hot pink school supplies that my eight-year-old self desperately needed, we headed back home to Ottawa. We were running late for dinner, but we knew we’d be home before the sun set. Driving along the treacherous two-lane Highway 16, we spotted a police officer on the side of the road, waving us through. As my father slowed past, we saw the bottom of a car sticking out of a ditch, upside down, with broken pieces of glass and dark liquid on the ground leading up to it. Just past it, was another small, red car, crumpled to almost half its size. It almost looked cute. We couldn’t see anything inside of the car because the windshield was shattered and there was blood all over it. We stopped.
“Officer, I’m a priest,” my father said through the window. “Can I help?”
“Oh—well … we don’t usually get priests these days … at least not as much as we used to. They don’t seem to stop anymore. Sure, that would be good,” and he motioned for us to pull over behind his vehicle.
“Guys,” my dad told us, “I need to stop and help these people. I want you to go up that hill and I want you to keep your eyes on me at all times. I need you to make sure you can see me at all times, but stay up there on that embankment. This shouldn’t take long.”
Being the children of a Ukrainian Catholic priest (yes, they are allowed to get married), we were used to these sorts of situations. By the time I reached middle school, I had attended over 30 funerals. It was cheaper to drag us along to a random parishioner’s funeral to “help sing” the service with my parents than leaving us at home with an expensive babysitter. Plus there were always free snacks! Death was not something my parents hid from us. It was simply the end of an earthly life, and the beginning of a true life eternal. And so, this stop on the highway just seemed like another one of those boring tasks we were expected to do as priest’s children, much like popping by your dad’s office on the weekend to pick up some files he forgot.
As my dad followed the policeman, I took my brother’s hand and we walked up the grassy bank, by the side of the road. It was warm, but the wind was picking up. Behind us was a wall of trees, mostly fir trees, that loomed over and seemed to contain us, giving the feeling of being in a big theatre. Soon, the initial officer was joined by two, then four, then ten cop cars. Several fire trucks arrived, howling their way to the scene. Forty-five emergency responders ended up descending on the little, miserable spot. Eventually all passing cars were stopped both ways on the thin highway, so people started spilling out of their idle cars and joined us on the embankment to watch the spectacle. My brother and I just kept looking at my father, head bowed, among all the people rushing and lights flashing.
… this stop on the highway just seemed like another one of those boring tasks we were expected to do as priest’s children, much like popping by your dad’s office on the weekend to pick up some files he forgot.
You can’t just pull bodies out of cars. It’s not that easy. First you have to fill the engine area with fire-retardant foam so there’s no chance of explosion, then you put jacks under the car and puncture the tires so they don’t accidentally explode while you’re pulling someone out, crushing their torso in half. These things take time. Both cars were mangled beyond recognition and the doors wouldn’t open, so we watched as emergency responders used the jaws of life to cut through the metal like one of those infomercials about fancy Japanese scissors. The sun started to set and the emergency lights looked like wildfire. We couldn’t tell if the screeching sound was coming from the hydraulics of the machines or from the people inside the cars, but the big scissors cut and soon the cars came apart.
At this point, a fireman had been sent to stand with us, and when the empty body boards showed up to pull the people out, he told us to turn around and started telling us about his dog.
On the way home, my dad said that ten people were pulled out of those cars in total. Some had already died, but some were still alive. We asked what they looked like, but he said he couldn’t see their faces. They were too bloody—some men, some women. That’s all he knew. My legs felt itchy on the fabric seats of our Oldsmobile Cutlass. It had been a hot day, we were wearing shorts and t-shirts—but by the time night had fallen, it had grown windy and cold. Our jackets had been left in the car, so when we got back, I desperately wrapped myself in my neon windbreaker to bring back heat to my body. We drove silently, without music or talk radio. My brother fiddled with the lock, pulling it up and pushing it down over and over again, so father started singing some Ukrainian liturgical songs and we joined in by rote.
We got home late, tired and in no mood for my mother’s concern. Since this was before cell phones, she was already planning our funerals when we arrived five hours late. After a cold dinner, we all went straight to bed.
At around 1:30 in the morning, my father woke up. It wasn’t a startled waking, but a gentle coming awake. As he opened his eyes and sat up, he saw three men at the foot of his bed, not fully there, in the flesh, but there in some sort of full yet elusive form. It’s not that they were transparent, but more that they weren’t as heavy as real people. They looked out of place just standing there rigidly. He could see their faces clearly, and regarded them in a familiar way, though he knew he had never seen those specific features before. He felt that if he had wanted to, he could have touched them, but he didn’t get up, because he slept in his underwear and didn’t want them to see. My mother was still asleep. Without talking aloud, he asked them who they were.
We couldn’t tell if the screeching sound was coming from the hydraulics of the machines or from the people inside the cars, but the big scissors cut and soon the cars came apart.
“You prayed for us. We don’t know what do to now. We don’t know where to go,” they said, without speaking. They stood there with this incredible intensity and purpose.
“Where to go?” my father asked gently. “Go to Jesus. “
He then bowed his head, prayed the funeral prayers he knew instinctively, and when he looked up again, they were gone. He said he wasn’t scared, just slightly dazed and curious. He knew he had been awake and not dreaming, but to make sure, he reached over and woke my mother to tell her what happened. She obviously didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, but he says that he had one of the deepest sleeps of his life.
The next morning, we got our Ottawa Citizen newspaper and on the front page were the faces of three men; the three men who had died on impact in the crash on Highway 16. Several of the others had died in hospital, we would come to find out, but at the time of printing, only these three men had died. Though he hadn’t realized it at the time, these three men had been dead when my father arrived at their car.
“That’s them. Those are the men from my room,” he told us over breakfast. We took this in as a matter of fact and then prayed together for all ten people from the crash. I don’t recall being afraid, but rather felt a closeness to the people we were praying for, a closeness I usually didn’t feel for dead strangers.
As my mother cleaned up our cereal bowls, my father left to go to work and we went outside to play in the yard with the neighbourhood kids. It was summertime after all.
Sophia Pierro lives in Toronto and owns a local gifting company called Present Day. The daughter of a Ukrainian Catholic priest, she grew up between the US and Canada and has many amusing stories about her unique experiences.