When a young woman dozes off on a dangerous highway, a chance encounter saves her from the burning wreckage.
Nineteen-year-old Stephanie Terrell knew she shouldn’t have stayed up so late the night before. It was four a.m. when she finally started her drive from Salt Lake City, Utah, back to her home in South Lake Tahoe, California. Now, seven hours later, Terrell was cruising eastbound on I-80 at seventy-five miles per hour near Fallon, Nevada. It was a hot August afternoon and she was in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t much to look at except for some mountains off in the distance and every so often a sign that read “Drowsy Drivers Pull Over If Necessary.” The air conditioner was on, the windows up, and Adele’s voice blared through the speakers of the 2002 gold Ford Taurus that she had bought from her uncle a few months ago.
She loved driving, but was tired of being in a car and anxious to get back home. Her eyes felt heavy as she tried to focus.
A devout Mormon, she kept a quad copy of the New and Old Testaments, the Book of Mormon, the Bible and The Doctrine and Covenants in her trunk. It was four inches thick, with a navy blue leather cover and silver-edged pages. Terrell’s grandparents had given her the book of scriptures after she was baptized at eight years old, and she memorized certain phrases, like: Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
She blinked. But her lids stayed closed for a little longer than they should have. She was asleep when her car veered off the road.
Violent bumps jerked her awake. It took a moment for her to process what was going on. The car was heading toward a shallow dirt ditch dividing the I-80 eastbound and westbound lanes. She gripped the steering wheel with her left hand and tried to turn back toward the road, without luck.
It felt as if a giant hand picked up her car and shook it like a snow globe. Dirt flew in her eyes, jamming her nostrils, and sneaking into her ears. She heard crunching, probably the sound of her own car hitting the ground.
Now, everything was still.
Dirt and dust clogged Terrell’s airways. She looked at her windshield, a giant glass spider web that seemed like it could shatter into a million pieces at any minute. She looked for her driver’s side window. It was completely gone. It must have broken at some point, even though she didn’t see any shards of glass.
Then she noticed a bulky man with short dark hair standing where her window used to be. He looked about six feet tall and wore shorts, a t-shirt, and black tennis shoes.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
She did not know if she was okay, just like she did not know that her car was just minutes away from exploding.
* * *
Steve Landers had been driving westbound on I-80 back home to Boise, Idaho with his wife, Laura, in the front seat and their two-year-old son, Bode, in the back. They had spent the last four days in Lake Tahoe at a relative’s vacation house. As a felony probations and parole officer, Landers had a tendency to watch everything around him. He was alert, surveying the dry land and salt flats surrounding him on the drive. There were no buildings in sight — just dirt, rocks and hills. Landers was two hours into the journey — only six more to go — when he noticed the gold Ford Taurus, heading the opposite direction, begin to veer off the road.
“Look at that car,” Landers said, his eyes following the vehicle. He slowed down. His focus narrowed. Although the car was probably going at least seventy miles per hour, it felt like he was seeing it move in slow motion.
The car kept charging forward, right into the 100-foot median, and the driver’s side plunged nose-first into the open stretch of dirt. For a second, all Landers could see was a giant dust ball. Then debris. He could see the car flipping through the air. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six flips? It finally came to a rest, sitting upright in the direction in which he was driving. After the dust settled, all he could see was the rear of the car.
Smoke billowed from the engine. Landers knew that a fire was on its way. The car was sitting on a pile of sagebrush, kindling to the fire. Whoever was in that car needed to get out of there fast, he thought.
“Call 911,” Landers said to his wife, before running toward the car.
As he took one step into the dirt, he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy walk. He was all too familiar with this particular type of dirt, which was abundant at the big military training area in Boise where he had worked. Moon dust, as Landers had come to know it, has the consistency of powdered sugar. It is so fine and dry that if you were to grab a handful and blow on it, a ball of dust would poof up and disintegrate within seconds.
With each step, Landers sunk ankle deep. But he pushed forward as he made a mental checklist of all the things he needed to do once he got to the car. His twenty-eight years in law enforcement and the military had trained him to make split-second decisions. In 2012, he was assigned to the U.S. Marshals Service Fugitive Task Force. He has been in plenty of situations where he forcefully entered a house and held someone at gunpoint. He’s had to make a decision to shoot or not shoot. Compared to those situations, this one was a no-brainer. As soon as he saw the car roll, he already knew what he was going to do.
Landers’s father and grandfather were police officers and he joined the Army right out of high school. After being stationed in Hawaii for six years, Landers transferred to the Army National Guard, which brought him back to Boise for another eleven years. Then he moved to the Idaho Department of Corrections, where he had worked for the past eleven years. Years of experience in high-stress situations had heightened his senses. Knowing how to act is as simple as relying on muscle memory.
Two minutes later, Landers was close enough to the car to see that the nose near the front bumper was smashed in and the hood crinkled up. He still couldn’t see any flames, but he could hear the snap and pop from the fire. He was relieved to see what looked like wispy campfire smoke as opposed to the thick, dense, brownish kind of smoke emitted from fires that burn fuel.
A few more steps and Landers reached the driver’s side of the car. The cap of the car was now completely covered in smoke. Through the smoke, he saw a girl wearing a blue v-neck and Bermuda shorts. She had bright blue eyes and her reddish-brown hair was up in a messy bun. Her eyes were wide and she looked bewildered and dazed. She was on her knees in the driver’s seat.
Holy cow, he thought. How did she manage to get in that position? She might have tried to escape because her seatbelt is off. Landers felt a pang of relief that he wouldn’t need to perform body recovery, or drag an unconscious or dead person out of a burning car.
* * *
Terrell stared at the man standing at her window. She heard him ask, “Is there anybody else in the car?”
Terrell smelled the smoke, but she did not know that her car rolled six times. Everything happened so fast. It must not have been that bad if I’m still alive, Terrell thought. She thanked God.
Terrell’s faith had always been a central part of her life. She went to church every Sunday and attended meetings at church during the week. In high school, she was proud of her nickname, “Mormon.” She did not consider it a religion, but rather a way of life. It had never been hard for her to abstain from coffee, alcohol, sex or drugs. Terrell regularly turned to the scriptures that her grandparents had given her, the same scriptures that were sitting in the trunk of her smoking car.
“Does your head hurt? Does your neck hurt?” Landers asked.
“My shoulder hurts.”
“We gotta get you out of the car,” he said. “It’s on fire.”
* * *
Science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness, argues that the traits that enable someone to step in heroically can be acquired or learned. “There’s very much possibility for ordinary people to become heroes if they have the right training, the will to do it, and the right preparation,” Svoboda says. Landers’s experience and training in the military had not only prepared him to navigate high-stress situations but has also informed his world view.
“Military organizations generally have honor codes or moral codes that emphasize doing the right thing even if it means putting one’s life at risk,” Svoboda says. She argues that for someone like Landers, that code is something he may call upon when he is faced with the decision to put himself on the line for someone else.
Landers knew that he had to move her, or she would burn in the car. Terrell didn’t look like she had any major external injuries, but he had no idea what was going on with her internally. Moving her could have caused greater injury. She could have ended up paralyzed, but at least she would be alive, he thought. The door jammed, but the driver’s side window was gone. Landers looked for any traces of broken glass from the window. When he didn’t find any, he reached in with both of his arms under Terrell’s armpits, cupped her shoulders — almost like he was giving her a hug — performed one last sweep to make sure there wasn’t another person or animal in the car, and pulled her out.
“Okay, we gotta go,” Landers said. He noticed she wore one Rainbow flip-flop. “Can you walk?”
Landers put Terrell’s arms around his neck, wrapped his arm around her waist to keep her up, and they took a few steps.
“All my clothes and stuff are still in the car.”
“You can get new stuff,” he said.
The two moved at a swift pace. Terrell could feel dead plants underneath her one bare foot. They took a few more steps before resting on a dirt mound about seventy feet away from Terrell’s car. Landers took a look at her one flip-flop.
“What are you going to do with that?” Landers asked.
Terrell gave a weak shrug.
“Just give it to the coyotes,” he said.
Terrell removed the flip-flop, and chucked it as far as she could.
A loud pop came from the car. The gas tank must have been releasing pressure so the whole thing didn’t explode, Landers thought. He knew they were not safe so close to the car. He told Terrell to get up and continue walking.
Another minute passed and after about thirty feet, Landers finally reached his car, where his wife and son waited. He sat Terrell in the front seat, gave her some water, and made sure the air conditioner was on. With Terrell safely out, his next priority was to prevent her from going into shock. Landers heard another pop and turned back to look at Terrell’s car. It was now completely engulfed in deep orange flames and thick smoke, like black cotton candy rising toward the clear sky.
It burned, along with all of the things she had in the trunk.
In the days after, Terrell would remember her scriptures: And, behold, as thy life was much set by this day in mine eyes, so let my life be much set by in the eyes of the Lord, and let him deliver me out of all tribulation. It never crossed her mind that she could have died that day. She hadn’t even realized that her car rolled until Landers told her. But it was while watching her car covered in flames that she began to understand the severity of the danger she had dodged, thanks to God and a complete stranger.
Her eyes fixated on the flames, sitting a hundred feet away from the burning car. She did not know it at the time but she had missed hitting the guardrail by about fifty feet. Suddenly, Terrell noticed her entire left arm shaking. It felt like someone had driven a knife into her shoulder. Her elbow felt like it was on fire. Her hand was sore and swollen. The adrenaline had worn off. The pain kicked in.
After forty minutes, the county deputies arrived, followed shortly by the paramedics. As Landers filed a report with the deputy, he saw Terrell being wheeled into the ambulance. The paramedics had shut the doors, but Landers asked if he could say goodbye. He opened the door and saw Terrell lying there. He gently touched her foot and told her she was going to be okay. She cried as she thanked him. He wished her luck and closed the door.
* * *
At the hospital, Terrell learned her car was sitting at a tow yard thirty minutes away. After she was discharged, she decided she wanted to see the damage for herself. With her left arm in a sling, her hand cut up, four fingers bandaged and her elbow streaked from some road rash, she arrived at the tow yard, where the mechanic was surprised to see her in such good shape. The same could not be said for her car. It was now an ash gray, with the windows gone and the fabric from the seats burned off. She could see straight through to her trunk.
Terrell didn’t have high hopes that anything survived the fire but she opened her trunk anyway. The fabric from her luggage had burned away and all of her clothes were damaged. She rummaged around and was able to retrieve a necklace that belonged to her great grandmother. The chain it hung on was charred and tangled, but the once-green stone and the wire surrounding it were still intact. Terrell found a cuff bracelet that she hoped she could still wear after it was cleaned.
She dug around some more. Lying beneath some fabric she could not discern was her scriptures. Her leather bag containing them was gone, and the front cover had burned off. But after she flipped through the first ten pages, she started bawling. The rest of the pages were intact.
* * *
Four days later, still bruised and bandaged, Terrell went back to work at Applebee’s. Her hospital tab came out to be $4,200. Without any medical coverage, she was on a plan of $150 a month in payments, and she picked up two more jobs to pay for school and medical bills.
In addition to working three jobs, Terrell was taking a full load of courses at Lake Tahoe Community College. To offset the costs, she applied for and was granted the California Community Colleges Board of Governors fee waiver, a financial aid program that waived enrollment fees so she would only have to pay for books and supplies out-of-pocket.
When Terrell told her story — to strangers at work who asked about her sling, friends who found out about her accident through Facebook, a high school teacher she hadn’t seen for a while — it sometimes felt like she was telling someone else’s story. But as she created an inventory of the things lost in the fire, drove around in a different car and felt the shivers and pangs of pain in her shoulder, she was reminded of the day a complete stranger pulled her out of a burning car and saved her life.
It never ceased to amaze Terrell how lucky she was that day, August 19, 2013. Landers happened to be on the road at the same time and pulled her out of her car moments before it blew up. Even being asleep had prevented her body from tensing up, which would have caused greater injuries. She thought of the scriptures, the enduring pages that she flips through each day: In all thy ways, acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
For her, all of these good fortunes weren’t coincidences. After the accident, what she had experienced reaffirmed the way she wanted to live her life, with more kindness to strangers.
Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
The bible verses she had grown up memorizing had now taken on a new meaning.
* * *
Jennifer Y. Lee is assistant editor at Schneider Publishing and former deputy managing editor for Zócalo Public Square.
Max Mose is a cartoonist and illustrator based
out of Minneapolis. You can follow his work here.