CRYSTAL CLEAR - In race to see ailing mom, Airman takes on Mother Nature ... and loses

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Crystal Salierno, as told to Tim Barela
  • Emergency action controller and training manager in the command post at Whiteman AFB, Mo.
It was only a couple of days before Christmas, and I was anxious to get home for the holidays. Christmas is my favorite time of year, especially since I was going to get to spend it with my best friend -- my mom. But a black cloud hung over us this year. My mom had been diagnosed with leukemia, and the treatments were making her deathly ill. A year earlier her sister had passed away from brain cancer, so we were scared. Nobody said it out loud, but deep down inside we felt it might be our last Christmas together.

So nothing was going to keep me from getting home ... or so I thought. I guess you could say I had a pretty bad case of "get-there-itis."

With that mindset, I ignored weather reports. Forecasters warned people to stay off the roads, as a big storm approached. But Mom lived in my hometown of Kansas City, less than a five-hour drive from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., where I was stationed at the time. So to see my mom, I decided to take on Mother Nature.

Bad idea.

I rationalized that I could probably beat the worst of the weather as I would start early in the morning. But this ended up being one of the nastiest ice storms Kansas has seen in recent history.

I started questioning my decision early on because my windshield wiper blades kept freezing. Several times I had to pull over to knock the ice off so I could see to drive. It was slow going. After four-and-a-half-hours of driving, I was only at Emporia -- halfway there.

I-35, the route I took, had been reduced to one lane of traffic. Everyone was using the fast lane because the other side of the road had been completely snowed over. You couldn't see the asphalt in that lane at all.

Even though I was a nervous wreck traveling in such bad weather, my spirits stayed high with the thoughts of seeing my mom and my brother. I didn't have much experience driving in the snow. Normally, in weather like this, I never had to drive more than 10 minutes to get to work. I talked to my brother, and he and my mother said I should pull over or turn back. But, of course, I ignored them. I was 20 years old and could be pretty stubborn.

My concern for my mom and wanting to be home for the holidays probably clouded my judgment. I mean, let's face it; I shouldn't even have gotten in the car that morning. So I let my emotions get the best of me. But I still felt that the main repercussion for my actions would be a frustrating drive that was going to take twice as long.

I crept along at 35 to 40 mph on a 75 mph highway when suddenly the guy in front of me hit his brakes. I followed suit, but must have slammed the brakes too hard. The back end of my vehicle swung out, and I instantly lost control. I slid into the snow-covered lane. Luckily, no one occupied that lane because I would have hit them. Unfortunately, a big semi-truck had pulled off the road, and I slammed into it.

The impact seemed to happen in slow motion. My cell phone flew up, careened off the windshield and split in two. The airbag deployed, but my head jerked to the side and smashed through the driver's side window.

Instantly, snow began to fill the car through the gaping hole left by the shattered window. It looked as though someone had egged the inside of my car as the grocery items I had picked up to do some Christmas baking with my mom had exploded in the back seat. Somehow, my hair gel, which had been in a zipped bag, broke free and added to the gooey mess.

Luckily no one had been traveling with me because the passenger's seat snapped in half. My seat belt kept me strapped securely in my vehicle and probably saved my life.

When the truck driver heard the impact on the back of his trailer, he ran to my window. My door was folded so I couldn't get out. The whole nose of the vehicle -- from the bumper to the dashboard -- jammed under the semi-trailer. The officer who responded to the scene later told me that if I had been going even a little bit faster, I would have ended up under the semi. ... I could have been decapitated.

Still in shock, snow formed like tiny icicles on my eyelashes as I sat there staring straight ahead. The truck driver was Hispanic and couldn't speak English very well. Wide-eyed, he just kept saying, "Bleeding! Bleeding!"

With the shock masking any pain, I was like, "No, I'm fine. I'm not bleeding."

But, of course, I was. The violent collision with the window had split my head open just above my left ear. I finally saw the blood dripping on my coat.

Another car pulled over and a couple undid my seat belt and pulled me out of the vehicle, careful not to move my head. When police officers arrived, they moved me inside the cop car because it was freezing and I was shivering uncontrollably.

I was taken to the emergency room in Emporia, where doctors put five staples in my head. At the hospital, I began to feel pain in my head and neck and felt totally exhausted.

When I called my mom and brother, I was a bit hysterical as the reality set in. The only other time I had felt this close to dying was when I was deployed to Iraq and an enemy mortar attack shook the wooden air traffic control tower I was manning, nearly knocking me off my feet. I was terrified then, and that same frightening feeling gripped me now. My mom got very emotional too. She almost made the same mistake as I did and was going to drive into the blizzard to get to me. But her supervisor convinced her to wait. I spent the night in the hospital.

When my mom saw me the next day, it was quite an emotional reunion. But once she knew for sure I was going to be OK, her inner "parent" kicked in and she scolded me some.

I can't say as I blame her. I'd nearly killed myself.

I learned my lessons, though. Before traveling, I now evaluate the situation better before ever stepping foot in the car. I should have waited for the storm to ebb and the salt trucks to work their magic. Also, I can't be so stubborn. When I realize I put myself in a bad situation, I need to call it off. After the first 30 minutes of my trip, I should have turned around and went back to the base. I had plenty of red flags -- like the frozen wiper blades and snow-covered roads. And finally, I'll always carry a winter kit in my car. When I crashed I didn't have one. That could have made the situation worse, especially if I had been stranded alone.

But the main lesson here is I can't let my emotions rule my good sense. Here I was trying to ensure I would see my mother for maybe our last Christmas together. She still feels guilty that I risked my life to try to be with her. Can you imagine what it would have done to her if I had been killed that day?

Salierno is an emergency action controller and training manager in the command post at Whiteman AFB, Mo. Her mother, Malinda Johnson, now lives with her. Johnson's leukemia is currently in remission.