Monday, July 20, 2009

Report from the Scene of the Tree Fall of 2009 Vineman 70.3

UPDATE: I'm glad to read the cyclists injured during Vineman 70.3 when an oak tree toppled over on them are doing much better today. When I first arrived at the scene, I though things could have been a lot worse.

Thanks to the confluence of a variety of events (my swim time, my T1 time, my pace on the bike), I was amongst the first to arrive at the scene of the freak accident where the tree fell across the bicycle course at mile 6.55 of the Vineman 70.3 race.

Here's my story, culled out separately from my race report:

I'd come off a good swim for me (middle of the pack overall), and over the first five miles of the bike from Johnson's Beach down River Road I was averaging over 23 mph, getting ready to turn off onto Sunset Ave and then onto the rollers of Westside Road.

I turned off River Rd and made the initial steep climb onto Westside. I was about a mile and a half into the twisty rollers, and that's when it happened.

I was about to crest a slightly uphill blind right curve when I heard what sounded like a a trash truck dropping an empty dumpster on the ground around the bend.

When I crested the curve, I could see there was a tree down by the side of the road. Wait, no, it was down in the other lane. Wait, no it was ACROSS THE WHOLE FRICKIN' ROAD! I slammed on my brakes and came to a stop. There were three cyclists stopped in front of me just staring at this tree down, and that's when we heard the screams of someone who must've been trapped under the tree.

I quickly dismounted as did the other triathletes around me and ran up to the tree blocking the road to see there were two cyclists caught underneath. I shouted at one of the triathletes who was still on his bike to run back to the crest of the hill to warn the long line of cyclists coming up behind us to prepare to stop. And then I ran into the tree to see what had happened.

One of the downed triathletes (cyclist 1: the guy moaning/screaming) had take the full brunt of a big branch across his body and bike. The other one (cyclist 2) looked like he'd been lucky and was knocked over in the relative void between the two thick trunks of the tree. Smaller branches were broken all around him, but he didn't have anything heavy directly on top of him like cyclist 1 did.

I and two other triathletes made a beeline for cyclist 1 as he was making a lot of noise and had to be badly injured. He was scraped up pretty badly, and there was a good sized trickle of blood coming out from under him onto the pavement. We picked away the branches from on top of him and from around him and then the two guys with me started attending to his injuries right away.

I then jumped into the middle of the downed tree to help clear the branches from around cyclist 2. He was ambulatory and seemed to have his wits about him, but you could tell his day was over.

I then got back out of the tree to see there were about 15 triathletes gathered around wanting to do something to help but also wanting to race on. I saw one of them whip out a cell phone and tried to reach 911 (limited cell coverage out there), so I knew help was coming.

I also noticed that there were many triathletes who'd found a 5-foot-tall break around the left side of the felled tree where they could squeeze through and get back on their bikes. The only problem? The break was caused by a line (power? telephone? cable?) that was keeping that side of the tree from crashing to the ground. Some folks were simply clipping out to push their way through while others were dismounting fully, so I decided it was time to play traffic cop.

The last thing we needed was 100s of triathletes bunched up at the tree, so I thought the best thing to do was to help guide folks around the blockade.

The guy at the crest of the hill continued to warn people to slow down, and as they got to me at the tree, I told them to dismount and pass through the opening but DO NOT TOUCH THE WIRE! (later found out it was just a telephone wire). I could see a lot of the triathletes were shocked at the scene (nothing can prepare you for something like this), and they seemed grateful to be able to get around and keep going.

As I was directing people around the scene, cyclist 2 climbed out of the tree debris and came up to me asking how his shoulder looked. I looked at his shoulder muscle, above his race number, and only noticed some scratches and told him so, and he said "no, I mean did the collarbone pop?" It did look large, but I asked to see his other one to compare. Yup, sure enough, he'd broken his collarbone. His day was done.

I went back to directing traffic and not too long after, a fellow triathlete in a UK flag jersey told me he'd take over and let me ride on. I don't know how long I'd been there already (my Garmin would later show I'd spent 5 minutes at the crash site) but I was relieved to get back on the road. I grabbed my bike off the ground, ducked under wire and paused as I saw that cyclist 1 appeared to be doing better (he was no longer moaning) and he'd been cleared from under the tree.

I proceeded to mount up and pedaled quickly away, realizing that if I'd only been a few seconds faster on the swim or in T1 or hadn't sat up to take in some liquid in the first 5 miles, that could've been me.

The newspapers report there was a third man who broke his collarbone when he crashed into the felled tree, but I only saw the two. Maybe the third guy came in too hot after I'd left? There was a cyclist about two miles up the road (beyond) from the felled tree who was stretched out in the middle of the road next to his bike. He was clutching his shoulder as two other cyclists stood over him, waving us on.

As I rode the rest of the course, I felt a comraderie with the other triathletes who'd stopped to tend our fellow triathletes. I wish I'd remembered their numbers to give them shoutouts here. It's good to know we've got each others' backs.

Sure, we can compete against each other, but when you're going 70.3 miles as an age grouper, you're in it together to make it to the finish line.

That's what being a triathlete is all about.

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