Officer Alex explains why his senses can’t leave the scene
I am not your blowing wind—I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon—I am the night
I am not your rolling wheels—I am the highway
—“I am the Highway,” Audioslave
It’s that acrid smell that hits you before you even open the car door and you know it’s bad. I would smell it on the occasional Halloween night when kids would burn tires under a highway drainage ditch for effect, but in general it only meant one thing: Vehicle fire. And “vehicle fire,” of course, meant nightmares may have just come true.
Despite what Hollywood would have you believe, automakers go to some fairly incredible lengths to keep vehicles from catching fire, much less exploding. In order to pull it off you have to actually try, to be negligent, or as it is in most cases, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. You can mix two of the three without much effort, but I find it’s the last option most find themselves too familiar with.
Interstate 24 is a little over 316 miles long and it ends in Chattanooga at I-75, but it is known in trucking circles for a few spectacular steep grades (Monteagle is actually known nationwide), the lesser of them running up and down a ridge overlooking Chattanooga known simply as “The Ridgecut.”
The crashes coming down are both spectacular and prone to multiply as people stare stupidly at the carnage they’re passing as opposed to the slowed or stopped vehicle ahead doing the same thing, and bam—I have a new customer. (“Bam,” and another. “Bam,” and another…) I would just hold up my index finger, nod, and mouth the words, “I’ll be right with you” when I’d see it happen, jaw either slackened in disbelief or smiling depending on my level of acceptance of the universe that day (time of day and rainfall being substantial factors), sweat perpetually dripping off the tip of my nose.
It was the uphill side that crawls towards the east that made me think of that smell, though.
“Damn, boss,” I remember a co-worker saying, the back of his hand across his nose, elbow dramatically hiked up, and eyes squinting as they waited for it to dissipate. “I hope there’s nobody in that thing.”
White smoke billowed from the rear of a Mercury Tracer, the remainder of its dark-red paint job barely showing through by now. The windows that were still intact were covered in a white-and-black film and water ebbed from the base of the door where it had overflowed its edges due to the work of Chattanooga’s Bravest. The smoke had burned quite black earlier as petroleum products quickly folded their defenses, and we were now left with a combination of smoldering and steam, but as it turned out I was actually here because there was someone in that car.
The Tracer had been negotiating a sharp curve (for an interstate) and was beginning to climb the hill. The driver certainly didn’t expect a semi pulling a trailer to be in his intended lane, otherwise he wouldn’t have reached back over the seat and begun searching for a toy for his youngest while negotiating this combination of terrain, I’m sure. The Mercury met the back of a fully loaded trailer, and like the two occupants still inside, the rest was history.
Except for the smell of burning rubber, plastic, and…well, never mind that last one, but it’s the one you take home with you in your clothes and your hair and your dreams.
In a way, we’re both burned when that happens, I suppose. Sights are sights, sounds are sounds, but a smell is a very primal thing. Maybe that’s just me, though—but when it’s triggered? The scars on the client match the ones inside the service provider almost to a “T.”
I clapped a hand on my partner’s shoulder, clenched my jaw, and took a brief walk. He understood. Most cops do.
I let the brisk night air blow through my fingers and hair for a bit as I walked towards the city lights, knowing the smell locked into them wasn’t going anywhere soon, and neither was I, judging by this traffic. The lights cast their glare and the smoke drifted on and neither cared; I leaned against a guard rail and wished I could do the same.
When officer Alexander D. Teach is not patrolling our fair city on the heels of the criminal element, he spends his spare time volunteering for the Boehm Birth Defects Center.