The Automobile Rollover

The morning of the accident, Molly woke up in time to get dressed in her gi and hakama and walk across campus from the dorms to the gym for the 9:30 am class. She was, along with 150 other martial artists, training at the San Rafael Aikido Retreat—an annual event held north of San Francisco that is equal parts pilgrimage, practice, and party. That she made it to this last morning class is impressive, considering that she’d been up till 5:00 am telling stories, singing songs, dancing, and hanging out with friends that come to San Rafael each year from all over the world.

Molly with Frank Doran before her accident.

Molly as uke for Frank Doran before her accident.

Two of the three primary instructors at the retreat split the final 90-minute class, and then the third instructor organized everyone loading the training mats onto pallets till about noon. Everyone then went off to lunch, to change into street clothes, to pack, and to say goodbye.

Molly and her passengers—her daughter Kyrie, and aikido friends Sam and Alfons—took a short drive over the coast, then spent another hour at the beach in the afternoon sun, for a bit more hanging out and saying goodbye. They then made a brief stop in San Francisco’s Japan town, and set off south along Route 280, headed for Molly’s home in Menlo Park.

June 24, 1995 was the hottest day of the year. Oppressive hot, sweltering hot, air conditioning on full blast, windows up, and sunroof closed and covered hot. Everyone in the car had been up late the night before, and it had been a long week of intensive training and late nights. Compounding this, the Acura Legend was a comfortable car with a smooth ride. One by one the passengers nodded off, Sam first, then Kyrie. Alfons remembers Molly drumming her fingers on the steering wheel trying to stay alert, but she said she was fine, and he let himself nod off too. Just south of Bunker Hill road, about 20 minutes from her home, Molly was not fine, she was asleep. The car sped up and veered across three lanes of traffic. Alfons called out once, but got no reply; it was Kyrie’s voice that woke her: “Mom you’re going off the road!”

Molly distinctly remembers that voice. At this point, the car was already in gravel and immediately afterward on the grass of the center divide. Molly didn’t try to veer the car back onto the road, as there was too much traffic. Instead, she just tried to slow down.

Route 280 is a divided highway, and at this point the northbound lanes were higher up the hillside than the southbound lanes. The Acura was not on level ground. Or smooth ground. A rock or tree stump – something low but strong enough to stay put when hit by a speeding car – launched the car up and over the driver side front corner in a graceful roll. Graceful that is, until it hit the ground again, crushing the driver’s side front corner roof down to the dashboard, the headrest, and the windowsill.

Driver's side of the Acura was crushed.

Driver’s side of the Acura was crushed.

The passenger cabin, with the exception of the roof above the driver, was basically uncompromised. So too were the passengers – each of them hanging upside down by their safety belts. Kyrie’s seat had broken backwards during the crash and the headrest had flown off, but she was only bruised along the line of her shoulder belt, and had a bump on her head. After a moment to catch her breath, she released her sea tbelt and crawled out her window. Sam and Alfons, in the backseat, were both completely uninjured (though Sam found a piece of glass in his leg a year later), and, once they’d released their own seat belts, maneuvered around the broken seat and crawled out Kyrie’s window too.

It took Kyrie a moment to realize that her mother had not emerged from the wreck to join them. Bending down and looking through her window, and then walking around the car, made it clear why. Molly was pinned between the crushed roof, her seat, and the steering wheel. Her seat had been fully upright and her headrest had remained in place – which is the only reason that the roof had not collapsed any further. As it was, there would not have been enough room for anyone taller than 5’ 4”. Molly, thankfully, is 5’ 3”.

Even so, Molly’s head was trapped against her left shoulder, and enough of her body weight was pressing down on the right side of her head that it was difficult to breathe. The first impact – that crushed the roof to the headrest and the windowsill—had broken her neck, and thus she might not have been able to move her head even if there had been room to do so. If her weight had not been mostly suspended from the point where her pelvis was hanging on the steering wheel, she would have suffocated more or less immediately.

What had been the windshield lay flat upon the dashboard, punctured by the top of the steering wheel, which had clumps of grass clinging to it from dragging along the ground. Kyrie’s bicycle, which had been strapped to a trunk rack, had flown across all four lanes of the freeway and come to rest down the hill on the other side.

Molly’s hands had been on the steering wheel, and her foot on the brake, at impact, and the shock traveled predictably thru her arms to her shoulders and ribcage and up her leg to her hip. She had been thrown sideways into the door during the first roll, and had slammed into the steering wheel with her chest. Her seat belt strap line left a bruise so dark it turned green before it finally disappeared. The impact of the sunroof – striking the top of her head above her left eye – left bruising and implanted glass shards that kept coming out for the next few years. There were scratches all down the left side of her face, and dirt and weeds in her hair.

Everything hurt. She was upside down. And it was hard to breathe.

Drivers directly behind the Acura assumed Molly was carelessly changing lanes, probably swore under their breath, and were already past by the time she had entered the center divide. Several cars, a bit farther back and having seen the Acura flip and roll, pulled over immediately to see if they could help. The first of these was a doctor, and as he was walking up, Kyrie grabbed his cell phone to call Jeramy.

That call, as told by Jeramy . . .

Jeramy discussing call about accident.

Jeramy remembering the call from Kyrie about the accident.

“Kyrie was sputtering and yelling way too fast for me to make out what she was saying, but the words ‘accident’ and ‘Molly’ and ‘pinned in the car’ sort of rose out of the noise. At first I thought she was pulling some sort of joke, but when I said, ‘Wait a minute – Say that again?’, she kept saying the same stuff, only more coherently this time, and as soon as she gave me a general idea of where they were, I jumped in my car and raced off.”

It took Jeramy about 45 minutes to get there, partly because Kyrie didn’t know exactly where they had crashed (she had, after all, been asleep when this all started), and partly because once he did get close, there was traffic backed up in both directions, and he had to drive slowly on the shoulder to pass everyone.

Sam, with Kyrie on the phone, was looking for something to do and started unpacking the trunk, perhaps hoping that this would help the rescue workers get to Molly faster.

Alfons searched in the car for a small bag, and emerged with some homeopathic medicine, which he offered to Molly and the others. With Kyrie, Sam, Alfons, and the doctor who’d stopped, they had enough people to flip the car back on its wheels, but thought that this might make Molly’s injuries worse, and decided to wait for the ambulance.

They didn’t have to wait long. There is a Hillsborough Fire & Rescue substation two blocks from the exit they had just passed, and the first rescue vehicle was there in less than ten minutes. EMT and Fireman Bill Tutti arrived in that vehicle, and took charge of the rescue operation. Despite the fact that this was his first command, 20/20 hindsight suggests he made every decision correctly.

Molly's Acura after the crash

The driver’s side of the Acura was crushed.

The first decision facing him was whether to flip the car back over. There were enough people at the scene to do this, and cutting the car open would be much easier and faster if they did, but there was concern that Molly might not survive right side up—if her head shifted positions when they rolled the car back over, and she could not keep her windpipe open, Molly would suffocate before they could cut thru the roof and extract her. Tutti decided to leave the car upside down.

This required lots of balloons – not the birthday party kind, of course, but inflatable rubber bladders that were going to hold the car up off the ground once they cut thru the roof supports. The first rescue truck did not carry enough to support the whole car, and a call was made for a backup vehicle to bring more, while they set about the task of stabilizing the Acura so it wouldn’t shift once they started work.

Officer Dave Ferre, a local Redwood City Sheriff, happened to drive by moments after the accident. He did not recognize the car or any of the people standing by it, but assumed someone had been speeding and lost control of their car or swerved to avoid a deer. Rubbernecking drivers had already begun to slow down traffic, and several cars had pulled over on both sides of the highway. His immediate concern was that some Good Samaritan who’d pulled over on the right shoulder wanting to help would cause another accident when attempting to cross the 4-lane highway to get to the center divide and the overturned vehicle. He was also worried, on this oppressively hot day, that an onlooker’s dropped cigarette would catch fire in the dry grass, cooking anyone trapped in the car.

Highway Patrol had not arrived yet, and so Sheriff Ferre stopped to provide some traffic control until CHP could relieve him. He was also hoping to find a doctor, as the Paramedics hadn’t gotten there yet either (he did not know that one of the onlookers who’d already stopped was a doctor). The Fire and Rescue squad arrived while he was directing traffic, and once Highway Patrol showed up, he was able to walk over to the car.

Molly Hale knows two police officers—one is a long time buddy of her husband, and the other a blue-belt student who she trained with at her home dojo in Redwood City, was Sheriff Dave Ferre.

Officer Dave Ferre:

“So I walk around the car and realize that it’s Molly trapped inside. The paramedics start to ask me to step away, but when they realize I know her, they encourage me to stay and talk to her to keep her calm, because the worst thing for her at this point would be to succumb to the panic that hits most people in situations like these. I suspected Molly was not the panicking type, but nobody knows how they’ll react in a crisis until they’re in a crisis, and so I squatted down by her window and talked to her for about ten minutes. It was surreal—I don’t remember what we talked about, just that we didn’t talk about her being trapped upside down in a car wreck. We had an entirely ordinary conversation we might have had over coffee—which was an extraordinary thing to do in those circumstances.”

After those ten minutes of extraordinary ordinary conversation, Sheriff Ferre had to get back to his patrol, but it was clear by that point that Molly was going to stay calm and the danger of her panicking, if there had ever been such a danger, had passed.

A tow-truck, which had been traveling north on 280, turned around and came back to the accident site—and the driver latched onto the Acura so that it didn’t slide any further downhill.

The paramedics continued to prepare the car for being cut open, and an off-duty nurse who’d stopped to help climbed into the car with her. The nurse’s job was primarily to keep Molly awake, to keep her focused on breathing, and to talk to her like Sheriff Ferre had done to prevent panic from setting in. She also took and reported Molly’s vital signs to the paramedics busy working on the car—which gave them some idea of how much longer Molly could hold out.

Molly, while the feature performer in this particular drama, was not the only one the paramedics were concerned about. Kyrie, who wanted to stay with her mother, kept getting pulled away by rescue personnel who wanted her to sit down so they could examine the bump on her head and determine if there were any other injuries. One look at the car made their concern understandable—the idea that three people could have crawled out of that car unharmed seemed incredible.

Eventually, Kyrie was convinced to submit to the paramedic’s attention, and they packed her into one of the ambulances so she could be taken to a hospital and examined by a doctor. Just before leaving, she called out to her mom that they were going to take her away, and Molly’s emphatic though R-rated reply was “Kyrie, get me the F&#% out of this position!”

Sam, though everyone agreed that he seemed unhurt, was sent off in the ambulance with Kyrie, which did wonders for her morale. They overheard the radio conversation discussing where to take them: Chope Hospital in San Mateo had two available beds in the emergency room, while Mills Hospital (now the Peninsula Medical Center) in Burlingame only had one. Kyrie and Sam went to Chope.

Jeramy arrived about 45 minutes after the accident, with a pediatrician friend who’d been at the house when Kyrie called. The paramedics led him over to Molly’s side of the car, where they announced his arrival. Besides saying “Hey, I’m here,” there wasn’t much he could do, and there was so much rescue activity around the car that he had to step back to keep the area clear. He watched them work for about another half hour, installing and inflating the balloons carefully so that Molly would not shift position until they could pull her out completely.

Throughout the ordeal, Molly had sensation throughout her body—mostly unhappy sensation, but sensation nonetheless. In order to keep her airway from collapsing, she had to maintain a yoga headstand—not much of a challenge for her to do for 10 minutes under normal circumstances, but these circumstances were decidedly not normal, and she ended up being in the car for an hour and a half. Her concentration slipped once, and she let herself relax – her airway closed and she would have passed out, permanently, if she had not been able to wriggle around enough to get it open again.

It helped that she was not alone – she could hear and feel, though not see, the nurse who had climbed in with her, and Bill Tutti checked in regularly. She also felt like she had spiritual company—immediately after the vehicle came to a stop upside down, she experienced an image of the scene as if from outside and above herself, and had been looking down at the car when a woman’s voice exclaimed “Molly Ruth Hale! Get back in your body!” That voice, using the full name reserved for stern admonishments in childhood, brought her back into the car, but the presence did not abandon her:

Molly:

“Energetically, I felt cocooned. I was enveloped in pink and blue energy—translucent and soft colors—I felt that I was bathing in the light, even that I was of the light. There was a presence there, offering me a choice – I could stay or I could go. A voice asking ‘Do you want to be here?’ I had been given this choice twice before—as a two year old with an undiagnosed burst appendix, and at the age of 23 with viral pneumonia. This time, like the other two times, the answer was Yes!”

While her conviction was critical, the human body, especially the bruised and battered human body, has limits.

The next time Fireman Tutti checked in, Molly let him know that her strength, and therefore her ability to maintain the yoga headstand, was fading. “You’ve got to get me out of here now. . .” Bill alerted the other paramedics. Instantly, the operation took on a new intensity, and Molly felt the tension level on the crew increase. Within moments they started to cut through the roof supports.

Even without an integrated safety cage or roll bar, the Acura Legend was a solid enough car that cutting through the roof supports and using the Jaws of Life to pry the roof away from the driver’s windowsill took about ten minutes. Molly was sure these were some of the last minutes she could handle.

All that Molly remembers of the actual retrieval were Bill’s arms around her legs holding her up against his chest, that someone else was holding her front, and that only then they realized she was still belted in, so a third paramedic had to crawl in thru the window to cut her loose. She remembers the sensation of going from sitting upside down to being strapped down to a board, and then, from some mixture of exhaustion, shock, and relief, she passed out.

With Jeramy in the ambulance, they arrived at Mills Hospital at 6:15pm.

Keep reading. Next, A Day in the Life.