The meatballs and pasta for the retirement part at the envelope plant wafted into the front of the van. As usual, Joe was driving. Lily sat in the passenger’s seat. Her satchel of ice sculpting tools filled the footwell. Today’s assignment was easy. A head and shoulders portrait of the guest of honor. He’d gotten a job at the plant out of high school at eighteen and was now retiring fifty years later.
“In weather like this, we could just let him stop outside for a couple of minutes and save you a day’s work.”, Joe told Lily.
Joe and Lily agreed that freezing drizzle was the worst form of weather known to mankind. The freezing drizzle started to compound with fog as they descended down 15th Street into the South Platte Valley from Lodo. The sun was setting too and it was hard to see the stripes for their lane. Just as they came to Commons Park, they heard it.
Horns, crunching metal, breaking glass, and a splash. Joe hit the breaks and the horn. Lily braced herself. The van started to spin just as it hit the bridge. Car lights shot out through the fog at odd angles. A siren started to sound in the distance. Amazingly, the van stopped without hitting anything. The final stop was the last straw for the meatballs, however. The meatballs toppled over. Lily could see the guardrale for the wrong side of the road out her window. She started to unbuckle and get out, but Joe stopped her, putting his hand on hers.
“Hold on. Pileups like these are usually chain reactions. Stay in the van for a little while.”, Joe said as he hit the blinkers.
Joe hit the talk button the van phone and said, “Begin dial. Nine. One. One.”
“Emergency response. Please hold.” The moments took forever.
“Emergency response. How can I help you?”, a new voice said.
“I’m on the 15th Street bridge over the South Platte. I’m in a multiple car pileup in fog. I see at least five cars.”, another horn and a crunch interrupted Joe in that phrase, “make that six cars and an overturned semi that’s hanging over the bridge.” Lily hadn’t seen the semi, which was out Joe’s window, until he mentioned it. “I don’t know about injuries. My passenger and I are fine.”
A low metallic moan started to emanate from the semi.
“The semi cab’s going over.”, Joe continued to call the dispatcher, “it’s falling into the South Platte. I think there’s someone inside. I heard a horn as it went down.”
“Please stay in you’re vehicle. Fog accidents often lead to multiple pile ups. You’re safest in your car.”, the dispatcher responded.
Joe turned back to look for Lily. The door was open and her satchel was gone.
“Damn.”, he said.
Joe worked his way back to the cargo area of the van, grabbed the cord that he’d tied down the food with, opened the back door and warily got out.
“Lily!”, he called.
“Down here.”, Lily answered from a steep hill next to the bridge.
“Figures.”, Joe said under his breath.
Joe hopped the rail and followed her, half controlled, half slipping.
The cab of the semi was in the water, driver’s side down, in the middle of the South Platte. One of its lights was still on. The smell of gasoline was in the air. The water wasn’t all that deep, three or four meet maybe, but it was bitter cold.
“I’m going in after him.”, Lily said. “Tie the rope around me, in case I slip.” Her voice was steely.
“Lily, you’re nuts. You’ll get hypothermia.”
“He’ll die if someone doesn’t get him, and I can’t pull you in on a rope out of a current.”
Lily and Joe’s hair was already soaked.
“O.K. But, don’t be afraid to give up. I’ll pull you back in.”
Joe made a loop with the rope that wouldn’t tighten and put it over her shoulder. She said a silent prayer, jumped in, satchel and all. She leaned back and let the current drag her quickly to the fallen truck cab. She went so quickly she had to yell at Joe to give her more slack a couple of times.
The cab was off center. The bottom of the driver’s side door was on the river bed. The middle was on a small boulder. The driver’s side window was still under water, however, and the front window was facing downstream. Lily took a breath and went under the water to look through the drive’s side window.
The water was frigid. The quiet of being underwater was a change. The driver was tall and skinny. He was unconscious, bruised and starting to get blue in the face. His mouth and nose were underwater. No bones were obviously broken or out of place.
Lily came up. Joe yelled at her in the distance, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. She reached into her satchel and took out her ice pick. She let the water swirl into the space behind the front windshield and struck it while the momentum of the current was still carrying her. The glass broke. Lily swung the satchel with all her might to clear the broken glass. She struck the window and dragged, struck and dragged.
As soon as the space was clear enough for her she went in head first, stuck her head underwater and gave the man a kiss full of air. She clicked open his seat belt as she came up for another gasp. He sagged deeper. She took a breath, starting to shiver, and went down and gave him more air, mouth to mouth. As soon as she did, she grabbed him under the armpits and got his head above water. Gross brown liquid came out. She gave him another breath, it bubbled, and then she hit his back.
Her shivering was starting to get out of control and Lily was feeling weaker. She tried another breath. She could feel the cab slide a little on the rock and Joe’s call in the distance, an urgent yell.
“Get out! It’s moving!”, he yelled.
Lily kicked open the rest of the front window and dragged the man out. She gave the rope three short jerks and held the driver with both arms under his arm pits, trying to breath for him when she could.
“I’m freezing and I’m not sure he’s going to make it.”, Lily cried, her voice trembling.
Joe hauled them in as fast as he could. A siren blared in the distance. As they hit shore, Joe grabbed the truck driver, got water out of him with a Heimlich maneuver, checked the man’s pulse and started mouth to mouth and CPR. Another bystander put his jacket around Lily as his dog snuggled up to her. Lily felt faint and vaguely nauseous.
A woman at the top of the hill motioned to the EMTs getting out of the ambulance. A stretcher and the EMTS with equipment followed. Joe said a word or two, and then fell back onto the slope exhausted. Lily, Joe and another bystander were left alone under the bridge. Well, not quiet alone. A homeless man slept like a dead man under the bridge on the other side, oblivious.
A few minutes later Lily got up to return the coat she’d been given, but the benefactor was gone. Joe and Lily returned to the van. A TV crew had a camera pointed at the semi-cab, now a few feet further along in the river and crushed under a truck load of cement blocks that had spilled out of a the broken trailer that the semi had been carrying. The catering van, miraculously, hadn’t been hit by anyone else. Bright fog lights from a fire truck cleared the scene.
“. . . An unidentified man and woman dragged the driver from his cab, minutes before it was crushed by the driver’s cargo of cement blocks. EMTs rushed the man, whose breathing and pulse had been maintained with CPR, to Denver Health Center, calling his wounds critical and life threatening.”, a TV news reporter said into a camera set up at the edge of the collision.
Joe hit the button to turn on the van phone.
“Begin dial. Headquarters.”
“Hello Joe? What’s up? The factory said you didn’t come?”, Mark DeVeux said.
“Lily and I were in a little accident.”
“Are you guy’s O.K.”, Mark interjected before Joe could finish.
“Just fine. But, meatballs don’t make very good floor mats. . . .”
Joe and Lily decided to detour by his place in Lincoln Park on the way home. It was almost eight o’clock when they got in, and it was almost nine by the time they’d had hot tortilla soup and gone back to the van to mop up the meatballs on the floor filling several large trash bags. They’d collapsed on the loveseat in his living room, filled with his dad, him mom and several cousins and siblings as the ten o’clock news came on.
“A man pulled from the freezing South Platte by an anonymous man and woman is in stable and fair condition this evening at Denver Health. His pregnant wife spoke to us.”
“I don’t know who you are, but I don’t know how I can thank you for saving my husband. I don’t know what I would have done if he’d died. I love you.”
Joe took Lily’s face in his hands and gave her a long kiss on the lips in front of everyone.
“I love you too.”, Joe said.
A little later, Lily squeezed Joe’s hand, got up, and walked the couple of blocks home to the Parkway wearing the jacket she had acquired at the scene. When she got home she fell into a long deep sleep.