Pinned inside my car in a heap of twisted metal, sitting on the railroad tracks, with the freight train’s horn blasting, the railroad signals blinking, my life was changed in an instant. I knew that if I didn’t escape the train and the tracks, my life was over. All of this processed in just a matter of seconds. I turned to see my college roommate sitting next to me unconscious and bleeding from her head. I didn’t even know yet that my back was broken and I had suffered a closed head injury. There was no time to think and only a second or two left to act. The train’s horn blared louder and faster but over one hundred loaded freight cars don’t stop on a dime.
It had all started out ordinarily an hour before. My college roommate Anne had asked me to drop her off at her mechanic’s place as he was working on her MG Midget across town. She thought the repairs had been completed. But when we got to the other side of our college town of Chico, California, the mechanic had left and closed up shop so she was unable to pick up her car as planned.
Both of us with plenty of homework and studying to finish before Christmas break, only days away, got back in my car and headed back home towards our college apartment on Nord Avenue where my boyfriend John, was crashed out on our couch from working the graveyard night shift at his part-time grocery store job. He and I shared a motorcycle, a Kawasaki KZ 900 we had purchased together. The night before, he had borrowed it for work and as he slept on my couch unaware of Anne’s and my life-threatening predicament, the motorcycle was sitting on my apartment patio where we often kept it.
Like a bad movie, it was a cold and rainy night, December 8, 1987, and as Anne and I had approached the East Avenue and Nord Avenue Railroad tracks like we did most every day, this time the railroad crossing lights began blinking and the crossing arms came down, so I stopped as anyone would do and as we had done so many times before. We were stopped for about one full second when suddenly we were hit with such extreme force from behind, that we flew through the air in my 1985 Chevy Sprint, through the crossing arms, up the hill, and onto the tracks.
My head was injured from hitting something even while wearing my seat belt; most probably the steering wheel. I was dazed but in an instant saw that my roommate was motionless and bleeding slumped in her seat. I attempted to open the car but the frame was twisted and the car door would not budge. It was dark, raining, and I could hear the train’s whistle louder and closer yet there wasn’t a second to think of anything except that I knew I was getting out. There was not one shred of doubt. I took one second to muster all my strength and I ripped the car door open and off its hinges. I grabbed Anne and yanked her out my side where the door had been just moments before. I don’t even remember her weight or anything else until we cleared the tracks and lay in the mud, and the instant we did, the train made the most horrific noise as it hit my car and shot it like a bullet down the tracks as the windows blew out and pieces of glass and metal flew everywhere.
Eventually the train did stop and Anne regained consciousness. People were unable to cross the tracks for awhile due to the stopped train and the car debris, but a slim man in a dark, slick leather jacket came over to us from our side of the crash. He wrapped me in his rain dampened leather jacket and Anne in something else. I remember him speaking softly and kindly and asking who he should call for me. I told him to please call my boyfriend and gave him my apartment phone number and unit number. There were no cell phones in those days so I explained that my boyfriend was only a couple blocks away sleeping soundly on my couch and that if he didn’t answer the phone could this kind man just please go over and knock hard on the front door.
The man left immediately and Anne and I sat on the side of the tracks soaked in rain and blood, dazed. I felt no pain but could not move my head easily. What seemed moments later a policeman showed up, and the second he saw us he shouted, “Damn college kids, always playing cat and mouse with the trains!” I wanted to cry or scream but had no voice. He apparently decided to make his way to the young woman who had hit us, to question her, as he left us with a smug face and snicker I won’t forget.
Moments later my boyfriend John came speeding up to the scene on our motorcycle, threw off his helmet and laid the bike down without the kickstand. From his vantage point he couldn’t see us and probably feared the worst from the looks of the accident. When he saw me and Anne, John rushed over to comfort us and the policeman ran over and began screaming at my boyfriend, threatening John that he ought to give him a citation for speeding.
The next hours at the hospital and the days that followed were a blur because when the adrenaline wore off the pain was unbearable and so was the physical weakness.
Weeks later we went to the wrecking yard to see what was left of the car and I had forgotten that John and I had purchased a wrought iron fish tank stand at a garage sale a few days before the accident. It had been in the back seat the night of the accident. When the car was projected through the air onto the tracks when the woman rear ended us, the wrought iron fish tank stand had literally skewered or impaled the driver’s seat all the way through. So when we were thrown onto the tracks, the wrought iron leg of the stand had missed my body by an inch or less. It had completely harpooned my driver’s seat but had missed me narrowly. Had it gone through me, I doubt I would have been able to escape the car.
I had, however, suffered a closed head injury and broken back and would require almost six months of physical therapy. I lost that entire Fall semester at California State University Chico, and tried to return to college the next semester but had PTSD and would walk to the grocery store one block from my apartment and would forget how to get home and I would just sit on the curb in front of the Safeway, crying until someone came to help me figure out how to get home. It was the same for trying to return to classes. I couldn’t find my way to buildings I had taken classes in for months before.
I would have flashbacks and nightmares about being pinned in the car on the tracks and the pain kept me up many nights. My car was destroyed so I had to take a Chico public transit bus to my physical therapy appointments on the Esplanade, wearing a back brace, and it felt as though the bus had no shocks or struts as the constant jarring seemed to undo any relief that the physical therapy had afforded me.
I felt depressed for the very first time, because chronic pain made it hard to function in even the most mundane tasks, and my outstanding memory was no longer in top form, to the tune of leaving things on the stove burning for the first time in my entire life. Most of my college friends were self-absorbed and engrossed with their studies and social lives so I felt isolated. Even my roommate had gone home to Red Bluff to stay with her family, so I was all alone most of the time.
I called my mom and my grandmother almost daily for encouragement. My head injury support group meetings seemed to help me understand that my symptoms were temporary and that things would eventually improve. A brand new drug called Prozac had just come out and my neurologist suggested I try it, which I did, short term, for just a few months.
Chico, California was, and is, a college town that has multiple railroad tracks that weave and cut through all sections of the town. It is impossible to navigate the town without crossing tracks daily, multiple times. This proved to be difficult for me in various ways such as shaking, nausea, trembling, and sweaty hands every time I saw a track, let alone got near it or crossed it. The sound of a train was just as bad for me and trains were and are still heard nearly every hour both day and night throughout the entire town.
When I finally left Chico in the summer, and relocated to finish college elsewhere, my mother came to help me move and she did lodge a formal complaint against the police officer who had judged me so unfairly. It was deemed that the woman who hit me had been out partying for her 21st birthday the night before she hit me and Anne. She was not technically intoxicated at the time of the accident, but rather heavily hung over and not alert. Her senses were obviously dulled as she hit us at high speed and with tremendous force.
To this day, my dear Christian Chiropractor friend still cannot believe my x-rays or that I have healed so well. I have no residual memory issues and have fully recovered.
I wasn’t a Christian yet, when this accident occurred. That came a few years later. But looking back I see a lot of divine appointments. My landlord in Chico, Mrs. Roper, (No, not of Three’s Company) was a strong Christian woman and would always tell me she was praying for me. And my roommate’s platonic Christian body-builder friend who was always stopping by to eat my “most excellent cooking,” prayed for me a lot too. Even my boss at Zale’s Jewelers (before the accident) in the old Chico Mall, was a Christian and was always telling me she was praying for me. I had always thought prayer was just a sweet gesture but later realized it was much more than that.
It’s been 31 years today since I was spared in a miraculous way. My college boyfriend John and I both remain friends and both of us married and have children of our own. He recently started a mid-life crisis rock band and a couple of times a year my husband Bob and I enjoy going to watch his band perform. John even brought his wife to the big salsa dancing birthday bash I threw last year for my husband Bob’s birthday and it warmed my heart when John brought one of his sons to my daughter’s and my theater play we did two years ago.
As I reflect back on this anniversary as I do each year, my mind is boggled by God’s grace and plan for our lives, even when we have rejected Him or don’t yet know the truth. He truly does love us and desire nothing more than to draw us to Him, even when we don’t fully understand the depth of that love. He spared me so that I could have a relationship with Him. That’s hard to fathom but then I remember He created me to have a relationship with Him also and that’s no less miraculous.
I think of my three beautiful daughters, the places I’ve traveled, the books and articles I have published, the lives I have touched and that have touched mine. I think of those I have brought to Christ, several childrens’ lives I have saved, impacts I have made, and blessings far too numerous to count. It is all more than I can wrap my head around. It could have all ended that rainy night. But God is sovereign even when I didn’t know it yet.
I could have been crippled, disfigured, or killed. But God was gracious, so enormously gracious that it astounds me.
Last month I served as a volunteer Crisis and Disaster Responder with Crisis Response International, in the town of Chico, for the Camp Fire victims in nearby Paradise, California. As our crisis response team all prayed and served together during that tragedy, memories flooded back of my near-death experience and how faithful God was. Staying in Chico while serving during the Camp Fire, stirred some long forgotten feelings. I still have fond memories of my former college town although they are laced with mixed emotions.
I can cross the railroad tracks now with no problem, even the same East Avenue tracks where I narrowly escaped death. I would be lying to say the memories don’t come back rather vividly but now I feel peace and gratitude. There is no physical explanation for how a 120 pound, five foot 7, size 5, 21 year-old girl could rip a car door off its hinges and drag her roommate to safety, all with a broken back and head injury.
But it doesn’t matter. I know how I survived. God had a plan for my life. Plain and simple, an Anointed Journey lay ahead for me and nothing could stop that.