By Sivani Babu
A tragic close call in rural Colorado.
Useless. I wiped at my sunglasses with my dirty hands, trying to clear the droplets that settled on the lenses. The water smeared and streaked across, creeping into dust filled crevices and turning to mud. It became even harder to see and I gave up, pushing the glasses into my muddy and matted hair where they came to rest atop my head. Useless. I could relate.
My mind moved a few paces slower than my legs as I surveyed the accordions of crumpled metal and pebbled safety glass that surrounded me. The stench of diesel and Dos XX, refusing to be settled by the steady rain, oozed into my cotton button-down and my jeans. The white hood of an eighteen-wheeler looked almost pristine, except that it was no longer attached to its tractor and had instead been thrown into the roadside grass. Minutes before, the highway and the wreck had both been obscured by a suffocating sea of red earth sent hurtling through the air by unforgiving winds. A dust storm—one of the worst Lamar, Colorado had seen in recent years. This was not the disaster for which I’d been prepared. But in signing up to chase storms, perhaps I should have been prepared for anything.
There are places in the world that few people see even as they pass through them. Lamar is one of those places. It is not the Colorado immortalized on Coors bottles and in John Denver songs. There are no “cathedral mountains” to climb and no “silver clouds below.” Far to the east, Lamar lies in the drought-stricken Southern Plains—in red dirt country. The hills are petite, the cattle plentiful, the roads flat and straight, and if you head east, you’ll see Kansas miles before you get there. For a photographer obsessed with weather, this part of the country is an uneasy paradise.
In the late spring and early summer months, furious, billowing thunderheads punch into cobalt skies like explosions filmed in slow motion. “Fists of God” they’re sometimes called. They tower over the landscape, moving over farmland, oilfields, and small towns. Illuminated from within by lightning, they dump rain and hail until they exhaust themselves and collapse. The hail can destroy roofs, shatter windows, decimate crops. It can be catastrophic, but when conditions are just right, it’s only the beginning.
In early 2015, I sat in various sun-drenched cafes and coffee shops with friends and mentioned that I would be spending a week in the coming summer chasing storms in Tornado Alley with Warren Faidley, a veteran storm chaser and photographer. More than one person responded with an exasperated, “Of course you are.” Storm chasing, it seemed, was the latest in a long line of adventures that appeared to be designed to cause my friends and family an inordinate amount of worry. In reality, it was the latest in a long line of compulsions to capture in photographs the humbling power of nature—those reminders of our insignificance that I seemed to crave.
As a child of California’s Central Coast, I grew up knowing that at some point I would feel the ground move beneath my feet, but the specter of natural disaster never loomed. Instead it was packed away in an ice chest alongside cans of soup and AA batteries and stashed in the garage. Most people learned to live with it. I learned to love it. The physical power of nature was intoxicating and yet it also grounded me. Serious earthquakes were rare, of course, but even those smallest rumbles that left the chandeliers swaying gently were a reminder that no matter how solid the ground felt, there was always something beneath the surface that could make it roll like the ocean. Decades later near Lamar, as the curtain of dust closed in around us and the road disappeared, I had to wonder if in trying to capture what I so loved about the power of nature, I had forgotten the lessons it taught me.
I shot one last photo as we pulled over, getting as far from the road as we could without risking a rollover. Everything outside the car had turned a shade of rust that grew darker as the moments passed.
“We need to get further away from the road,” said Warren. We had both seen the semi lumber to a stop alongside us, the squealing of its breaks cutting through the whipping wind. We had seen it and known that our position was far less safe than it had been. I abandoned my camera on the floorboard as we simultaneously reached for our respective door handles, but before either of us could push open our doors we heard the moaning crunch of metal on metal. The semi lurched forward. We fled into the storm.
The wind screamed in my ears pelting us with tiny darts of fine dirt. I grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled it over my nose and mouth, but the chalky grit still coated my teeth and tongue. It found its way around my sunglasses and into my eyes, through my shirt and into my lungs. The drivers license and credit card that I had shoved into a pocket were ripped out and carried away. We ran toward safety, toward a field that we could not see, but that we knew was there. Inch by inch the dust stole our sight until I could barely make out Warren’s shadowy form only a few steps away. By the time I saw the fence, it was almost too late and I skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding a face first tumble into barbwire. There was no hesitation. We dropped to our stomachs and slithered under, the wire tearing at the clothes on our backs.
Four uncomfortable minutes later, the world began to brighten. The cry of the wind became less angry. The air was still red with dust, but more sunlight filtered through. Then came the rain, a gentle tapping that seemed so at odds with the punishing fury of the storm we had just witnessed. But any relief we might have felt was carried away in the wind that still blew across the road. Revealing themselves like ghostly apparitions were the outlines of eighteen wheelers and family cars, unmoving and unmistakably deformed.
Taking in the destruction, we slid back under the barbwire and sprinted to our car to summon help. On the phone with the emergency dispatcher, terms like “mass casualty” and “fatalities” hung in the air. Each moment revealed a new horror as the rain worked to settle the dust.
“Oh, God,” Warren’s soft exclamation drew my attention to a dark pickup truck crushed against the rear of a semi. Not for the first or last time, we both wondered if anyone could have survived. Warren spoke the words I’d been unwilling to, “We were lucky, my friend.”
He was not just a storm chaser and photographer. Warren was also a weather safety expert who had been a firefighter and, at one time, a certified EMT. His resume as a first responder included places that had become part of the national consciousness, places like Joplin and Moore. He knew how he would respond in a situation like ours because he had done it before. I, on the other hand, was untested.
I followed Warren’s lead, but we were quickly separated as we both worked to exert control over the chaos. I moved toward the rear of the accident and he toward the front. Triage.
“Were you transporting hazardous materials, hazmat?”
The truck driver looked at me with confusion on his face that could just as easily have been caused by a language barrier as by the head and facial wounds that were dripping dark blood. I opened my mouth to repeat the question in Spanish, but comprehension came before I could.
Questions about cargo and injuries passed through my lips, the answers filed away for the cavalry that was enroute. From the string of crushed cars and trucks and eighteen-wheeled giants the answers came, some in complete sentences, others in grunts and moans. The clearest answers were given in silence, in the absence of even the faintest beat of a pulse, but there was little time to dwell before moving down the line. Ensnared in a state of controlled urgency, my attention turned from the truck driver with blood flowing freely from his face, to a woman who had pulled herself from her destroyed car, to a clear liquid that I hoped was just water that seemed to be spilling onto the road from the trailer of a semi.
Disaster had always been a theoretical possibility. The flip side to the coin that allows some people to win the lottery, and I was, after all, hoping to see something capable of immense destruction. I had thought that if confronted with it, I might be frightened. Instead, in the moment I felt little emotion at all. But as an impossibly bright rainbow blossomed in the field behind the accident, something finally bubbled through the fissures.
The rainbow dripped in thick, saturated color as it framed the accident from end to end. Under any other circumstance I would have smiled and marveled at it. I would have rushed to set up my camera. But at that moment it felt obscene. It felt personal. It felt like nature was mocking us.
“Fuck you,” I said softly to the colors. “Fuck you.”
~ ~ ~
In the mayhem of the moment, it was rare to think of anything other than what I was doing and, occasionally, the helplessness I felt at doing it. It took a while for emergency personnel to get to our rural location and in that time, traffic had backed up down the highway. People had gotten out of their cars to watch. They’d stood on the side of the road with their phones taking photos, but I only saw one or two try to help. Maybe they knew. Maybe they could see in our faces how frustratingly useless we felt.
There were the walking wounded. People whose injuries looked worse than they were. People who through a combination of adrenaline and sheer will had extricated themselves from their crushed vehicles and who wandered the wreckage. There were the trapped. People whose bodies had been so engulfed in collapsed metal shells that we could not reach them. People for whom we could do nothing but try to talk to them and hope they answered. And then there were the others. The ones whose most painful wounds were not physical at all.
“I think my mom is gone.” The voice belonged to a bloody and shaking woman who stood alongside me as firefighters moved around her car. If there were any tears, they were hidden in the raindrops on her face. I said nothing, but took her hand. I knew she was right.
We stood side by side, watching the firefighters work. Next to me, the woman’s shivering caught my attention. She was wet, cold, and in shock. I began removing the cotton button-down that I’d been wearing as a top layer. It reeked. It was paper thin and soaked through with rain and mud. It would have done nothing to keep her warm, but it was all I had. Before I could finish peeling it from my skin, though, a man emerged with a heavy jacket from the eighteen wheeler that had collided with the woman’s car and driven it into the rear of another. His complexion was several shades lighter than I imagined was normal, his eyes dark with grief. Fault or not, he wore the guilt as though it were a coat as heavy as the one he draped over the woman’s shoulders.
The truck driver stayed close and after much convincing, when the woman agreed to go with her father who had already been taken to an ambulance, the driver walked her down the road while I squatted on the passenger side of her car and began talking to her husband. He had been driving. He was one of the trapped.
His body was contorted, filling the gaps left in the crumpled car. The rear end of a semi intruded into the space that had once held him, his wife, and his in-laws. Only two remained.
“Philip?” I called out, “Can you hear me?” From deep in the car came a groaned response and every other sound was extinguished. I searched for things to say. “Where are you from? Are you from around here?”
“From…Wiley.” I had heard someone say that emergency personnel from nearby Wiley were also responding to the scene.
“Oh, yeah? Those guys are coming out to help, too. There are a lot of people working to get you out of here. Where were you guys coming from today?”
A pause and then, “Houston.” Houston. They had been on the road for 12 hours and were likely no more than 20 minutes from home when they got caught in the storm. Sounds rushed back. The tapping of rain, the rustling of grass, the humming of engines, the voices of firefighters talking about how to free Philip from the wreckage. I rose to my feet to listen to the conversation. Lifting the trailer off of him was the best option, but they did not yet have the necessary equipment. The semi looked like it could still be driven. They wanted to try moving it, to pull it forward, but it was hard to tell where the semi ended and the car began. The wreckage was so grotesquely intertwined that it was impossible to know if moving the semi forward would free the man trapped inside or injure him further.
“If he yells or screams, anything, tell us and we’ll stop.” The firefighter was giving me direction.
“Okay,” I nodded before returning to a squat by the passenger side of the car.
“Philip?” I called out again. Silence. “Philip?” More insistent this time. “You still with me?” He answered and I mentally stomped down the panic that I’d only barely kept from my voice. “These guys are going to try to get you out of there. They’re going to try to get that truck off of you, but you gotta let us know if it starts to hurt, alright?” If it starts to hurt? I shook my head.
The semi roared to life as firefighters shouted instructions to each other, a cacophony that I did my best to follow even as I concentrated on the man in front of me. I backed away a few feet, just far enough to be clear of any debris that might get dislodged from the damaged behemoth that still towered over us. By fractions of an inch, the semi moved forward, but within seconds, I heard Philip’s painful moan.
“Wait!” I yelled and like a chain the message was passed in shouts to the driver who stopped instantly. Whatever I said next, the engine fell quiet. Once again it was just me and Philip.
The silence stretched longer than it should have. “Philip?” The response was weaker than before. “I promise these guys are doing everything they can. You just gotta keep hangin’ in there. Okay? Just stay with me.”
I sounded like a bad television show—the kind with stories and dialogue that could take the very real wreckage around me and make it seem like a set in some Hollywood studio. But the lifeless woman behind Philip was real. I had tried to give her daughter my wet shirt. She was real and she was constantly in my vision because I was looking at Philip and trying to keep our inane conversation going. I asked him about his family, his home, anything I could think of to keep him talking. When I ran out of things to ask, I started over, internally berating myself for my inability to sound like anything more than a poorly cast, fictional character. Life imitates art, but life imitating bad art seemed as unacceptable as the rainbow that still burned over the field behind me.
It was late that evening when the barbwire on the fence was cut and fence posts knocked down to make way for an enormous metal creature that rumbled through the field. I wondered where it had come from that the quickest way to us was through the field rather than down the road. It was the sort of machine I’d seen a hundred times, but couldn’t name. It rolled over the grass and up to the semi that still trapped Philip. By that time, I’d been moved out of my position at the passenger door. There were so many people working to free him that I was trying to stay out of the way. I’d retreated to stand in front of the car that Warren and I had abandoned hours ago. Filled with a need to do something, I grabbed my camera and photographed a firefighter silhouetted in the glowing sunset as he stood atop the machine that would free Philip.
Philip was the last one out that night. The only one who left by helicopter. And the one I wondered most about in the hours and days that followed. When the helicopter took off, Warren and I made our exit. A few goodbyes and exchanged handshakes and we were back on the deserted road to town.
Like quarterbacks after a tough loss, we analyzed the evening compulsively. What did we do right? How bizarre was that rainbow? What could we do differently next time? Next time. We used those words easily, as though the day’s events hadn’t been the confluence of time, place, and absurdity. As though some sort of “next time” was simply a given. Then again, for a man who spends his life chasing storms I suppose next time was all but guaranteed, and I had to acknowledge that, for me, it was more likely than for most.
But, if next time was a given, so too was the fact that we would head out again the next day. The forecast looked promising and our purpose was unaltered. That was hours away, though, and all I wanted as we trudged into our hotel was to wash off the grit of the day, to smell something other than fuel and spilt cargo, and to think. I tied my clothes up in a garbage bag before washing the dirt away. For the second time that day, falling water turned the dust on my skin and in my hair to mud, but this water was warm and it fell with more persistence. I watched it turn a diluted shade of the same rust color that had surrounded us hours before. The water circled, larger grains of sand sinking to the bottom of the current and trying stubbornly to stay before being swept away and spiraling down the drain. I breathed in the steam, a breath that filled my lungs and expanded my chest and triggered a coughing fit that brought the taste of chalk back to my tongue. It was the first of several that night.
Later, I sat up in bed balancing my computer on my knees and scrolling through the photos I had taken that day. The images filled in some of the information gaps that Warren and I had discovered on the way back to town. I could look at the photos clinically, could analyze them logically, and was troubled, though not surprised, by how easily it seemed I could set aside the emotions of the day in my own mental earthquake kit. The awfulness of what we’d witnessed, I thought, should be harder to put away.
When we had parted in the hotel lobby, Warren had told me that he hoped I would sleep well. Nightmares seemed acceptable, if a bit cliche, but I knew that when sleep eventually came, the nightmares would not. Instead, as I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, my thoughts meandered to all of the places I’d been recently. I had chased the palatial splendor of nature to some of the most remote locations on the planet. My travels had taken me to places I had never dreamt of seeing, but with increasingly less frequency did they take me home to the house where I grew up. At that thought, I was flooded with a sudden longing to hear my parents’ voices, an aching to know that they were safe and to tell them I love them. For most of my adult life, I had tried to spare them the worry that comes with having a daughter like me. I had become an expert at burying the lede, at slow bleeding the details of stories until they trickled out in a manner that would cause little concern, at waiting until I could find the humor in a particularly harrowing story before sharing any of it with them, but there was no humor to be found in the events of the day.
Picking up my cell phone, I stared at it as I silently warred with myself. It was well after midnight and their worry would start the moment the phone rang and the caller ID told them who was on the other end. They were a thousand miles away, sleeping with no knowledge of what had transpired, and I could let them be. But I had seen a daughter lose her mother that day, watched her follow her father to an ambulance.
The screen of my phone cast a soft blue light around the hotel room as my fingers slid over ten digits that I had been dialing for nearly thirty years. I knew who would answer. As a physician who had spent nearly all of the last three decades on call, my dad fielded all late night phone calls. His voice was alert to the reality that phone calls after midnight rarely bring good news and held only a hint of the slumber from which I’d woken him. I led with the two words that every parent wants to hear at the start of an unanticipated, late night conversation with their child, “I’m fine.”
~ ~ ~
The day I opened the first email from Philip’s son, was the day the feelings of uselessness started to fade. One by one, gracious messages filled my inbox. Philip’s son, friends of the accident victims, and finally from Philip himself after his release from the hospital. Their words were kind and grateful and although I still felt they were underserved, I was also reminded that sometimes it is not how much we can do that matters, but that we do what we can.
“It’s amazing I got to keep three of them,” Philip’s son had written to me. He’d lost his grandmother that day, but his parents and grandfather had survived. For that he was thankful and I wondered if I might have handled being in his position with as much grace.
The capriciousness of that day gnawed at me. I was under no illusions about fairness. Warren and I had been the ones courting danger, yet we had emerged from the storm unscathed, and that is the uncomfortable reality of nature: that it is indescribable beauty and arbitrary destruction. It is easier to romanticize it. To be seduced by the rainbow and forget the storm from which it came. But on a rural Colorado highway nature provided a violent reminder that another sunrise is promised to no one. That another chance to wrap my arms around my family, to cry tears of laughter with friends, to end a conversation with an I love you that does not need to be said, may never come. Because life is delicate. It cracks and it breaks and it disintegrates like earth starved for water. And when the winds blow, it is picked up and carried away like dust in a storm.
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in the story.
Sivani Babu is a California-based photographer, writer, former attorney, and perpetual Antarcticaphile. Her work has appeared in Nature Photographer and Backpacker magazines, on BBC Travel, and in various galleries in the western United States.