A Brief Assembly Of Good Samaritans

In the time it takes to dial 911, flames already lick out of the Plymouth's crushed body. "I'm on the 405 northbound, south of Seal Beach Boulevard," I shout into my cell phone. "A car has hit the center divider. It's upside down. And, oh my God, it's on fire!" In the breath it takes to stutter out my phone number to the dispatcher, flames have quietly seized the vehicle. I never cry, but I'm crying now. And I'm thinking, there's someone in there. Someone is in there.

A moment ago I was--like every other urban commuter--swimming through the soup of afternoon traffic. Suddenly, a puff of black smoke explodes from the slow lane. Then, motion. Or echo of motion as motorists struggle to get out of the way of a car shooting full throttle across seven lanes of traffic. It hits the center divider with enough force to send the vehicle 10 feet into the air. The subcompact lands on its back, flames immediately unleashed from inside.

Where are the experts? My first-aid know-how dates back to the Girl Scouts. The contents of my first-aid kit include tiny bandages and hand wipes. We need experts. Fire trucks and ambulances and paramedics hauling red metal boxes loaded with things that save people's lives. Someone trained to think in a crisis instead of me, now shaking so hard I can't release the cell phone from my hand.

At that moment, a motorcycle cop with the Long Beach Police Department pulls up alongside the helpless car. OK, I think to myself, someone who knows what he's doing. He kicks in the window. The sound is muffled, like we're suddenly under water. Kneeling down, he reaches inside the blazing wreck. All I can see is his helmet glowing orange as he pushes his arms deeper into the flames. A long moment later, the officer pulls back. No driver.

Nearby, a woman rifles through her trunk casting aside running shoes, a diaper bag, folding chairs. Finally she pulls out a bottle of designer water. I turn this over in my mind. How odd, serving refreshments to a burn victim. No. She's going to try to put the fire out with it.

The ambulance, visible in the distance, is frozen in a sea of stopped vehicles. No experts will come. No quick "MacGyver"-style getaways fashioned from sticks and old tire parts. It's just us, stranded on the freeway, and this horror.

I discover a small fire extinguisher my husband had stashed under my seat. Cursing myself for not thinking of it sooner, I toss it to the woman as she races back to the burning car with her bottle of Evian.

Thick brown smoke now churns from the overturned car. I can't tell if the fire is out, so I run down the freeway, shouting from car to car, "Fire extinguisher? You got a fire extinguisher?" Motorists shrug helplessly.

But others emerge from their cars to help. Like pioneers crossing the wilderness, these commuters suddenly find themselves banding together--an accidental community--to do whatever is needed. Some surely do it out of instinct, others in the hope that one day someone will come to their roadside aid. The scene is too tragic to be glorious. But this brief assembly of good Samaritans does suggest that there is another story to tell about our nation's freeways besides road rage and high-speed chases.

An out-of-state trucker leaps from his rig with a second extinguisher and puts out whatever was left of the blaze. If this were a movie, the police officer would pull out the motorist now. But it's not. The car has to be turned over so the man's leg can be released from where it's trapped.

These strangers have come to some kind of silent reckoning. A handful of men, including one in a nice suit and another in baggy pants, abandon their own vehicles to assist the officer as he begins rocking the car, its torched frame blistering their bare hands. It takes three tries before they right what's left of the blackened wreck.

The officer pulls out the motorist. The victim's in bad shape but still breathing. An R.N. has hopped the freeway's center divider to do what she can for him. Another commuter begins directing traffic. The ambulance finally muscles its way to the accident scene. The red metal boxes have arrived. And as suddenly as this accidental community formed, it has now dispersed. There's nothing more to do here. My car stands in the way of 15 miles of stopped traffic. So I slide behind the wheel and slowly drive home.

The motorist dies on the way to the hospital. If it had been a high-speed chase, it would have led the 11 o'clock news. It doesn't. Here's what should have been reported: a man died. Strangers tried to help. In the heart of a difficult city, rush hour was briefly transformed by tragedy and goodness.