Police & Fire Transportation

Copp’s Hill Moment: Fourteen Seconds is a Lifetime

(Thomas F. Schiavoni recalls an encounter along the highway that was too close for comfort.)

     It happened one moonless Sunday evening in March. I was driving a little over the speed limit – about 70 mph – southbound on the Maine Turnpike returning to Boston from Portland with my wife and two visitors from Dublin. The patter of our passengers was entertaining as only the Irish – never at a loss for words– can be. The nighttime traffic was thick, but smooth-rolling in both directions. As far as the eye could see, fast- moving streams of vehicles poured through the darkness like opposite-flowing rivers of blinding white high-beams and the soft reddish glow of tail lights.

I was chatting, but attentive enough to notice the sudden flash of brake lights not far in the distance. Flicking on the hazard signal, I yanked my foot off the accelerator and pumped the brake pedal in short rapid bursts as I veered towards the gravel edge of the grass divider. I had left enough space between ourselves and the car in front, but wasn’t certain about the one reflected in the mirror. I prayed that we would not be rear-ended and propelled into a chain collision. Somehow we came to a halt without a roadside pile-up. But, it looked as if the vehicles a quarter of a mile ahead were not as fortunate.

My frantic maneuvering had killed all conversation. In dead silence, my wife and friends caught their breaths. We sat trapped bumper-to-bumper in a dense tangle of idling vehicles. Many minutes passed as the sound of sirens grew louder. A long relief column of state police, ambulances, fire and tow trucks threaded its way down the breakdown lane. More time elapsed before the roar of thrashing blades filled the frosty night air as a medical copter swooped onto the median strip like a menacing nocturnal raptor.

It was an hour before we inched our way past rescue crews and through the smoke of crushed, overturned vehicles. My heart did not stop pounding until we cleared the New Hampshire toll booths. Conversation was sparse the rest of the way home. Buried in the following morning’s paper, a terse paragraph referred to the accident. An elderly motorist from Canada had driven the wrong-way up an exit ramp into the oncoming path of turnpike traffic. One person died; another was critically injured.

From time to time, I think back to that evening when we were happy and homeward bound. With the odometer at 60 – that is, a mile a minute – a vehicle can cover a quarter mile of road in 15 seconds. At 70 mph, it’s closer to 14 seconds. I will never forget that night when we were only 440 yards or one, two, three … fourteen Mississippi’s away from death – our deaths. And, still I wonder how differently that day might have ended had we or a gentleman from Nova Scotia not paused to tie a shoe or stopped to snap a photo.


North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living. This piece has been excerpted from a performance work in progress entitled: “Passed Away Suddenly”.