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Nicaragua: Crash

truck convoy

Farmers crowd into old trucks for the long, dangerous ride from Matagalpa to Managua. (Photo: Kate Miles)

Sometimes in our travels, the unexpected happens. We are off somewhere in a distant place, doing our work, when life intervenes. The unanticipated event can provoke mild surprise, momentary disorientation, even a sudden epiphany. And sometimes, as in the story recounted here, the intrusion is overwhelming and shattering.

Sara Miles has edited this Web site on many occasions over the past three years, often interviewing our reporters about their off-camera experiences. Now she shares her own harrowing experience in Nicaragua, an area she has covered since the war in the 1980s between the Sandinistas and the U.S.-sponsored contra rebels.

We have never published a story like "Crash" before on the FRONTLINE/World Web site. Our job as foreign correspondents is usually to cover stories of war, politics, the environment, global economics. But we all know that in reporting these stories, things sometimes happen that we tell each other but rarely write about, even though they are often memorable, searing experiences. From now on, we intend to share some of these personal accounts -- the jagged, jarring moments that reveal something about us and the countries we visit.

--Stephen Talbot, Series Editor

Crash

By the time we slowed down, at a bend in the hot, rutted road where an old school bus and two dilapidated farm trucks were stopped, the great throng of shouting men had reached us. A sweaty guy with his shirt off was waving wildly at a pickup truck as it pulled away, and I could see four others stumbling toward our car, yelling and bearing a limp, bloody body in their arms.

I was in Nicaragua -- where I'd been a reporter 20 years ago -- with my partner Martha and our 16-year-old daughter, Katie, who was working as an intern at a Nicaraguan NGO. It had been a rough few weeks getting acclimatized: The heat was suffocating, the noise and filth overwhelming, and we were exhausted each day just making our way through the wrecked, sprawling streets of Managua.

A dozen people were shouting urgently, lifting up a young man. He looked to be about 19 or 20 and was unconscious; his face and head and shoulders were covered with blood.

We'd taken advantage of the national holiday commemorating the 1979 Sandinista revolution to drive north to the remote, cool mountains of Matagalpa. Though the Sandinistas themselves had lost power in 1990, they still brought busloads of peasants into Managua's central plaza for their anniversary -- mostly celebrated now with public drunkenness and empty speeches -- and we wanted to avoid the crowds.

All the way to Matagalpa, as I steered our tiny rental car along deep green ridges in the early hours of that morning, we had passed caravans of cattle trucks and overloaded school buses bound for the plaza, weaving and bouncing over potholes as they rumbled down the mountains. Now, as we drove back into the heat of the plains, we were seeing the same caravans starting to return from the celebration, crammed with scores of flushed, rum-stunned men hanging off the sides.

I came to a halt and jumped out. A dozen people were shouting urgently, lifting up a young man. He looked to be about 19 or 20 and was unconscious; his face and head and shoulders were covered with blood. He had fallen off a truck onto the highway; the driver, afraid of trouble, had taken off, and his comrades had been unable to flag down help from other motorists.

Managua house

An improvised shanty in Managua. Thirty-two percent of homes in the sprawling capital have no electricity. (Photo: Kate Miles)

I looked at Katie, ashen in the front seat. I looked at Martha -- a woman who faints at the doctor's office when she sees a needle -- and yanked our back door open. "Get him in the car," I told the men. They laid him on Martha's lap -- his legs bent randomly, his arms dangling -- and she took his head in her hands. "Is he still breathing?" I asked. Martha nodded. "Tilt his head up a bit so he doesn't choke." That was all the emergency first aid I could remember.

Someone was shouting, and suddenly another man, utterly drunk, sobbing, had clambered into the cramped backseat with Martha and the boy. "My friend, he's going to die! My friend!" he kept crying. "Take us back to Matagalpa." There was something soft and wet on the injured boy's chest -- brains or vomit, I couldn't tell. His hair was wet with blood, but I couldn't see any place where blood was pumping out. I yelled at the crowd to move aside and took off.

I had no idea where to go. Matagalpa was two hours behind us, Managua still an hour in the other direction. The roads were torn up and bumpy and teeming with honking buses, horses, bicyclists, kids on foot. We had passed a small village about 15 miles back, and I prayed there might be a doctor, or a pharmacist, or someone who knew first aid or a telephone there. I knew there was a gas station. "He's still breathing," said Martha.

Matalgapa children

Almost half the children in the mountainous northern provice of Matagalpa are malnourished. (Photo: Kate Miles)

Martha doesn't speak Spanish, so she couldn't understand what the drunk was howling: that his friend had wanted to take a bus from Matagalpa that morning, but didn't have the three dollars, so climbed on a truck instead; he'd lost balance, or jumped, or been knocked off -- it was hard for me and Katie to understand, either, since the guy was hysterical. He kept bursting into tears and trying to lunge for his friend to embrace him. I kept trying to restrain him, to talk steadily and calmly, to drive as fast as possible without hitting anything. Katie kept watching for a turnoff, a store, help of any kind.

And Martha kept holding up the young man's head, as her skirt and shirt darkened with blood. "I just thought, God, he has a mother," she said later. "If he had any consciousness at all, he must have been so scared and wanted his mother." So she talked quietly to him -- in English -- telling him over and over to keep breathing, that everything was going to be OK, that she was there. She stroked his chest. If he's dying, she thought, then I want the last thing he feels to be somebody taking care of him.

We lurched and hit a pothole. I heard Martha's panicky voice rising over the ranting of the drunken companion. "He's not breathing right," she said. "He sounds like he's choking."

"We're almost there," I said. I didn't know where we were.

Then in a minute we were at the gas station -- a broken-down building with two pumps outside. I ran in and begged the woman to tell me where the hospital was. "Managua," she said. "What about the Red Cross?" I asked. "A clinic, a doctor?"

No, she said, nothing, but there was a police station down the road. I raced down a dirt path, over a pile of brush, through some mud. We pulled up, honking, at a one-room stucco house where three young men in uniform were standing in the doorway.

They had no "station," no vehicles, no first-aid training, nothing but a wooden desk and a dusty typewriter. One of them began to put on a green cotton vest -- it said POLICIA on the back -- and Katie yelled that a man was dying, he had to come now. It didn't seem to register. He took the vest off, turned it around so the letters were on the front, looked at it and sighed.

I glanced at our car. The friend had crawled out and staggered to the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride back to Matagalpa. People were crowding around to see what the commotion was about. I sent Katie to try to make sure the drunk carried a message to his friend's family, to let them know what had happened to their boy.

"He needs help, he's not going to live, he won't make it all the way to the city," I said desperately to a policeman. He pulled out a cell phone. Martha leaned out the car window and called to me. "Now I think I'm going to pass out," she said.

I helped the cops pull the young man out of the back seat. I couldn't remember the Spanish word for "spine," so I kept saying "cuello": "Watch his neck, please don't move his neck, be careful of his neck." He was still and damp, and his soft lips were slightly open. I realized we didn't know his name.

Roadside graves

Graves marked with crosses in a roadside cemetery outside of Tipitapa. (Photo: Kate Miles)

A pickup truck with police from a neighboring village pulled up, and with great heaving and shouts, the boy was loaded onto the flatbed. The truck lumbered away.

Katie and Martha came over to me and the policemen, standing in the dirt. "Excuse me," Katie said numbly, "she needs to wash her hands. Can you tell us where the bathroom is?" She led Martha to where the cop pointed, to an outdoor cement sink with a hose in it. Martha slowly splashed the tepid water over her bloody arms, then we all stood there for a minute, holding on to each other. Then we got back into the car and drove through the gathering dusk to Managua.

It rained that night, a sudden thunderstorm, and heat came up in waves from the hard pavement outside our house. Two days later, Katie read in the newspaper that a man named Basilio Lopez Velasquez had died from injuries sustained from falling off a truck on the road to Managua; three others had died the same way that day, and dozens more had been hurt, but survived.

"Is this our guy?" Katie asked.

"I don't think we'll ever know," said Martha. "But I will always remember him."

Sara Miles is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

REACTIONS

Sembawang, Singapore
Hi, I find this article very useful. It has some nice thoughts. Continue working in the same way.

Richard Haddock - Martinez, CA
A harrowing experience and a great story which created a memorable roadtrip. One is not normally thrust into a life or death situation like this. It says a lot about Nicaragua as well, not very positive, at least in this case.

San Francisco, CA
This is a truly moving account of a moment in time. Thank you!

(anonymous)
Gracias Sara, Martha and Katie. Muchas gracias.