Northbound on Highway 99
Once there was and there was not …
Some days the Sun seems closer to the Earth. Rays push down like a hundred pound weight. Temperatures soar past 99 degrees. Circulation, respiration, neurons, and cells work overtime, in concert, to keep us functional. We thirst for water, for ice. We crave for shade, for air-conditioning. We want to slow down, to sleep.
Night falls on these hot summer days, and I drive to work an hour before midnight to write the news. I drive detached from the weight and severity of daytime.
In the dark of midnight, breezes cool the Central Valley. They come as a gifts from the Sacramento Delta.
Tigran Hamasyan’s piano accompanies Nune Yesayan as she performs Sayat Nova’s “Kani Vor Janim.” The soundtrack for the night is music from the 2006 Armenia Fund Telethon. I find peace and perfection in this collection.
Nune, the Armenia Fund, the Armenia TV Morning Show live from the Cafesjian Center for Art, and this newspaper are a few of my token connections to home and the Homeland. These are the tangible and audible manifestations of our culture, of perfection only possible through art, of intellectual peace.
This particular Sayat Nova song had shuffled by chance into my ears less than a week ago when I was in a yellow cab, riding Northbound on Highway 99. The song had calmed my anxiety after the jet I was flying in made an emergency landing in Bakersfield.
There were 12 of us on the half-hour flight from Los Angeles to Fresno when the captain made the announcement. We were going to make an unexpected landing. Nothing else was said. A talkative woman in the cabin said she smelled electrical wires on fire.
Green firetrucks with rotating red siren lights greeted us as we touched down at Meadows Field. There was one on each side of the small jet and a third one following behind.
I found out later from a Meadows Field official that something had gone wrong in the cockpit. She shared the information before she left us to field an inquiry about the emergency from Channel 29, a Bakersfield television station.
She said smoke had filled the front of the Embraer jet, and the pilot and co-pilot had to don oxygen masks while landing the jet a mere ten minutes away from our destination.
We deplaned in a hurry, the crew following us with their suitcases in hand, and then we waited in the empty air terminal for an hour.
What had happened? Were we to continue our journey? Was the airplane alright? Could we have died? Did anyone care?
Not much was said. The stewardess passed out bags of trail mix until airport officials told us we were going to be driven to Fresno in cabs and mini-buses.
We may have dodged an untimely bullet, but some in our group were already complaining about not being compensated. Never mind an explanation or apologies. They wanted something tangible, something more than a mini-bag of trail mix.
Irony and sarcasm come to mind when you’re at the end of a 24-hour journey from Yerevan to Fresno, riding a cab North on the 99, munching on trail mix, and listening to Nune on your iPod.
There had been a 2-hour wait to board the flight in Yerevan, a nearly 8-hour flight to London, a 3-hour layover at Heathrow, another 12-hour flight to Los Angeles, and more hours of waiting at LAX.
The only drama in the 24-hour journey had been at customs and security. Where are you coming from, they asked? Why were you there? How long have you been gone? Did you go to a farm? Were you near livestock? Were you bringing back any commercial products? Did you have any liquids?
Now, during the last ten minutes of a 24-hour journey, we had to land the plane. The upside was that the weather was perfect, and we were landing on an extremely flat valley floor. We weren’t over an ocean, above steep and rugged mountains, near a spewing volcano or over frozen tundra.
But the upside isn’t what you think about during an emergency landing.
Your mind, especially a tired mind, wanders. You tell yourself you are happy to have gone to the other end of the Earth to be with your people, to have seen the Tatev Monastery with your own eyes, to have experienced village life.
You feel fortunate to have serendipitously run into Atom Egoyan in Republic Square while he was in Yerevan for the Golden Apricot Film Festival. You remind yourself of all the great, dynamic people you just met and promised to always remember.
Was this how it would end? So close to home? Had you had a full life? Had you done everything you had aspired to do? Was there no more time? No more hope? No more you?
Could’ve, would’ve and what ifs always make headlines in our mind during these odd moments in life. Emergencies, deaths of loved ones, natural disasters make us all pause and regroup.
Only in these awkward moments of an otherwise seemingly normal 80-90-year journey does life feel so fragile, so momentary.
Accidents can and do happen, no matter how many safety checks and precautions we take. Lives can be extinguished without notice no matter who we are, how much money we have, where we live, and how we have lived our lives.
And only then do we say, “I should’ve told them how much I loved them,” or “I should’ve spent more time with them,” or “I should’ve been nicer,” and “I didn’t get a chance to…”
Working in the newsroom of an NBC station, there isn’t a night that goes by without death and destruction being a part of the nightly trail mix.
The news feeds from across the globe bring to my computer visuals of devastating and fatal floods, suicide bombers in Iraq, and aerial attacks on the West Bank. The most devastating news from overseas is when one more local soldier has been obliterated by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
Hourly come these reminders that the victims in abstract concepts like the “War Against Terror” are the sons and daughters of your neighbors.
Locally, the newsroom echoes with scanners crackling, alarms beeping, and fax machines churning when something has gone wrong and strayed from normal.
There are shootings, drive-bys, murders, house and brush fires, car accidents, hazardous material spills, drunk drivers, and paramedic responses to cardiac arrests, aneurysms, and strokes.
Wars on terror and tragedies may seem to be part of the far-away, bigger picture until we realize that these are our stories, that we are the people the statistics chronicle, the ones who die from botulism, step on landmines, and get crushed in car wrecks.
Some five days after my emergency landing in Bakersfield, the chatter on the scanners in the newsroom became extremely excessive about a quarter past two in the morning.
The California Highway Patrol was responding to a crash on Highway 99. Words like rollover, multiple casualties, extrication, fire, sheriff’s, and EMT’s put the newsroom on alert.
Early reports said there was a rollover with multiple casualties. A Greyhound bus with 47 people on board was involved, as were two SUV’s. There were reports of trapped passengers, transportation to multiple emergency rooms, and of debris scattered all over the highway.
Our overnight photojournalist Sam was first to be to the scene. He called the newsroom around 3 AM to confirm that there were fatalities, and our newsroom went into breaking news mode.
The news director received a wake-up call. A second photojournalist, George, was dispatched with a live truck, and I was asked to call to work a half-a-dozen reporters in the middle of the night.
Who had died? How? And why? Was alcohol involved? Was fatigue a factor? Who was injured? Where were victims being taken? Had their families been notified? Who had information on the passengers? Was bus safety an issue? Would the highways be closed and for how long? Had there been accidents like this before? Could this have been prevented?
There were many questions but only a few facts.
A Chevrolet Trailblazer with three young girls had suddenly swerved away from the McKinley Street off-ramp and overturned. As it had come to rest upside down in the fast and middle lanes, a Greyhound bus had crashed into it, smashing into the concrete median divider, clipping a Honda CRV, then tumbled down a 15-foot embankment between the 99 and the exit ramp.
Later we would find out that the 18-year-old driver of the Trailblazer had been drinking. It was yet another senseless case of drunk-driving destroying lives, wrecking families, and cursing everyday people like me and you to lifetimes of loss and pain.
“There was blood everywhere,” said one witness. “Like bombs going off, pieces and parts everywhere,” said another witness.
I wrote the words describing the scene for our anchorwoman Faith to read. As I spewed out the facts, the script in my head was full of emotional dialogue like, ‘what a waste of young, precious lives.’ The whole tragedy was sad. Unjust. Unfair.
The three young girls in the overturned SUV had passed. Three others on the bus, including the bus driver, had also lost their lives.
In a matter of seconds, six lives had been lost, at least two dozen had been injured, and thousands upon thousands of commuters would be impacted by road closures and detours for the next six to eight hours.
Where there had been peace, serenity, a cool breeze and Nune, there was now carnage, chaos and tragedy, loss and sadness, unanswered prayers, anger and tears.
Most of the stories written and produced for our two-and-a-half hour morning newscast were floated in favor of live updates from the scene every 15 minutes.
The live feed of a press conference from the scene aired during the first 15 minutes of our newscast. Then we aired interviews with witnesses, a California Highway Patrol spokesman, and survivors of the devastating crash.
Our graphic artists created maps to show our viewers the location of the accident and the detours. Our traffic reporter updated the commute every ten minutes, and our anchorman Colin was sent out to the scene to report live and file reports to our affiliates across the US.
In the control room, the phones didn’t stop ringing. News services wanted the facts, while senior producer Michael and I communicated instruction to our photojournalists and anchor in the field via their earpieces, coordinated our resources, and screamed out instructions to our control room crew and director Chris.
Each time we had new video or information from the scene, we would break away from the story on the air to take a live report from Highway 99. The emergency had left the highway and come to life in our control room. Our anchors, director and crew were steady, and the newscast flowed flawlessly as if planned hour ahead.
Minutes before the tragic accident, which of those victims knew their lives would come to an abrupt end.
One of the women in the SUV was a young mother. It had been her first night out after she’d given birth three months before. What would her baby remember about her? That she had gone out drinking? Would the passengers of the Greyhound — heading from Los Angeles to Sacramento — ever imagine their bus would be pried open like a can of dog food?
Tragic events like the Greyhound crash happen every day, whether we are aware of them or not. A teenager drowned in Shaver Lake last weekend, and a family lost its home in a fire last night. These are the stories that sober us up when we hear them, but they should not be heard and forgotten in vain.
We need to understand that in addition to being extremely careful in our daily lives, we must count each moment as a blessing and exercise love and respect with each person whose path we cross.
In an era when we each think we are the most important person and the focal point of the world, at a time when competition and the drive to win at any expense trumps civility and forgiveness, we need to remember that our flames may be extinguished at the most unexpected and inconvenient time.
And when we expire, all that will be left are either happy memories, contentment or guilt over kindness not expressed, love not shared, and respects not paid. Did we take chances we should not have? Did we drink and drive? Did we do the right things?
Will it take a bus crash or an emergency landing for us to be the best we can be or the best we should be? Whom will we love today? When will we begin to be grateful for this very moment?
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.