Indy 500?

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cliffon Dolezal
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Gut-wrenching screams, the shattering of glass, and the unforgettable screeching of metal twisting and bending all around me as my truck rolls over and over again.

I thought those were going to be my last memories.

April 12, 2012, started out like any other Thursday for me in North Judson, Ind. I woke up early enough to take a quick shower and grab some breakfast before heading out the door for work at a local restaurant chain. I was working a double that day … no problem for an energetic 19-year-old. Just the same, I made sure to grab a coffee.

My 45-minute drive to work gave me time to finish my cup-a-joe and relax before I spent the rest of the day on my feet.

Halfway through my shift, I received a call from my girlfriend, Nicole. Elated, she informed me that her classes on Friday had been canceled … a three-day weekend!

Any other time I would have told her I was on my way, and then jumped into my vehicle for the three-and-a-half-hour trek to Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., to bring her home. Instead, I decided to tell her I had to work, and that I wouldn't be able to make it until Friday night.

I was lying, of course.

I wanted to surprise her.

After finishing up my shift, I made the 45-minute drive back to my house and got myself ready to make the long trip to Muncie. I asked my sister if she'd like to join me to surprise Nicole. She said yes, so we hopped into the truck and were on our way.

I remember not feeling as tired as I had thought I was going to be, especially after working a 16-hour shift. In hindsight, I'm sure I was just too eager to surprise Nicole. Full of adrenaline, I was unable to perceive the actual feelings of drowsiness and lethargy slowly creeping over me.

We arrived in Muncie uneventfully and successfully pulled off the big surprise.

We then helped Nicole pack her things and load them into the truck.

We hit the road around midnight. We talked and laughed most of the way home, but it was late. Before too long, my sister had fallen asleep in the back seat. Nicole laid her head on my shoulder and dozed off as well.

After 30 minutes of driving without someone to keep me company, the fatigue of 16 hours of work and more than seven hours spent on the road started to take its toll.

With the heat blowing full blast to keep the frigid weather at bay, no music and no one to talk to, my eyes grew heavy and my concentration waned.

My head started to bob and my eyes closed as we started to cross over the shoulder of the road. The roughness of the road’s shoulder quickly snapped me out of my slumber, and I got the truck back on course.

I glanced over at my sister and Nicole to see if the slight detour had awoken them. They hadn't moved an inch.

Fear had gotten my attention and propelled me further down the road. However, it didn’t take long for that sluggish, drowsy feeling to return.

As we crossed the county line I remember saying, “We'll be home in 10 minutes guys.” Truthfully though, I was so tired I can’t recall if I actually said it or just thought I said it.

After more than seven hours of driving, I started to develop throttle foot; so I turned on the cruise control. I remember stretching and thinking about lying down in bed and sleeping for hours on end. The thought had gotten the best of me, and I got my wish.

I was asleep.

Flying down Highway 10, with the cruise control set to 60 mph, my 2008 Ford Ranger started to creep across the centerline, carrying my two passengers and me to an unknown fate. We were completely in the other lane of oncoming traffic, and the Ranger still continued to pull left. The new route took us off the shoulder and onto the bank of a 10-foot ditch.

I regained consciousness with the Ranger on two wheels and bearing down on a telephone pole 15 yards in front of us.

I gripped the wheel and ripped it to the right. We turned up the ditch, still traveling at 60 mph, and the truck began rolling onto the driver side of the vehicle.

Nicole and my sister awoke in horror to the sound of breaking glass, the deployment of airbags, and the positive and negative G-forces as the truck slammed into the ground. We rolled over again and again, and didn’t stop until we hit a tree some 40 yards from where we had made the first terrifying revolution.

The accident lasted about 15 seconds, which seemed like hours.

We came to a complete stop upside down with the driver's side pinned against the tree. I released my seat belt and slammed against the roof of the vehicle. After a verbal check to ensure everyone was OK, I kicked out the front windshield and helped Nicole and my sister out of the vehicle.

Once out of the Ranger, we ran up to the road and flagged down the next vehicle we saw to call 911.

We were lucky. We all miraculously walked away from this brutal mishap with only minor injuries.

I’d learned some valuable lessons about the dangers of driving fatigued. When it was all said and done, I’d driven my own little version of the Indy 500, crashing out with only a “few laps” left in the race. Somehow, I survived it, and, thankfully, hadn’t killed my girlfriend, my sister or some other innocent bystander.