The Day I Killed Someone 

This essay was originally published by The Bold Italic. 

I stood there on the Napa River Bridge, gripping the railing for what seemed like the longest time, trying to figure out what had just happened, as a fireball engulfed the wreckage of crunched metal to my right.

Thirty minutes earlier I had been sitting in my friend’s living room, basking in the homey smell of corn dogs cooking in the oven. Now I was standing by a human body trapped in an open-air fire, billowing smoke into the sky. My mind was in disarray as I looked out from the arched causeway leading to the vast marshland on the horizon. I couldn’t appreciate the captivating view. Staring at it was like trying to listen to my favorite song with a screaming child in the foreground. That’s the thing about trauma—there’s no distraction or comfort to be found.

I had just driven 60 mph head-on into a stopped car. I was not only walking and talking, but had no visible wounds or injuries from the collision. The other driver had most likely died upon impact before his body perished in the fire. His car was sitting in the middle of the highway—without its break lights or hazard lights on. Before stopping, the driver had showed no signs of trying to pull over to the shoulder or get out of the car.

I looked to my right. The fireball was getting closer to me, billowing up and out of the burning wreckage it encapsulated. To my left, gasoline was flowing from my car’s punctured fuel line, flowing narrowly past the fire. I imagined it could ignite the entire bridge and everyone on it, including me.

I snapped out of my morbid fantasy when the highway patrolman in charge of the accident scene confronted me.

 “Excuse me, did you see what happened here?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

 “Well, we’re trying to locate the other driver’s body . . . ” 

“The other driver’s body?” I asked, for the first time noticing people peering over the bridge’s railing, presumably looking for my body in the water below. 

“Yes. It’s not in the car,” he said nodding toward my car, the driver’s door swung wide open. 

“Oh, well, I . . . I am the other driver.”

The patrolman was stunned I was alive. Though I had emerged unhurt, he told me that this stretch of Highway 37, the road that crosses the Napa River Bridge and leads westbound to Sonoma Raceway, was notorious for fatal collisions. Before a median was built in 1995, it was nicknamed “Blood Alley.”

As the patrolman filled out his report, he told me that, based on my tire tracks on the road, I probably only had my foot on the brake pedal for a second or two, reinforcing my belief that I couldn’t see where the other car was stopped due to the slope of the bridge. He then administered a standard field sobriety test, which I passed despite being in shock. 

Then I sat, perched atop a gurney, in the back of an ambulance as it drove me to the hospital. Despite my grief, I couldn’t help but feel out of place—being transported uninjured in a vehicle made for injured people. After I was discharged from the hospital, my friends drove me back to their house. Being in a moving car so soon after the accident was beyond unnerving—I kept having horrible flashbacks, hallucinating crashing into the cars driving in front of us.

At my friends’ house, I sprawled out on the floor in front of their television, staring at the ceiling, where more fatal car crashes played out on the blank canvas. Periodically my friends would laugh at something on TV, and I’d snap out of it. How could they be laughing after such a horrible day? I thought. How could they enjoy anything? 

Then I remembered—I killed someone. They had not. I had been the one to feel the explosion upon impact. They had not. I had felt the shock waves reverberating throughout my body as I struggled to get out of my car. I had witnessed the horror of a human body on fire. They had not. My friends knew death existed, but I had seen it up close. My friends were sure that they would be alive tomorrow, and the next day, and even months and years in the future. I was not. 

For the first time in my life, I felt immune to caring about trivial things. From then on, I no longer cared about who gave me a dirty look at the gym, or who forgot my birthday. I was dissociated from reality—part of grieving. Yet the weeks and months following the accident were filled with bureaucratic and logistical nightmares: How would I get to school without a car? How would I get anywhere without a car? And the scariest question hanging over me was whether I was a criminal.

I lived in constant fear. My friends and family, too, warned me there could be criminal charges looming. One day, the assistant to the DA called me from the Solano County District Attorney’s office. I asked her if I would be facing criminal charges, and to my surprise and relief, she said, “No, we don’t call those people.” Instead, she was calling to tell me that I was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. 

This relief was immediately superseded by the fear that a civil case could be brought against me at any time. The Department of Motor Vehicles was also threatening to rescind my driving privileges.

Just as the potential criminal charges never materialized, my license was never taken away, and the family of the man I killed never brought a civil suit against me. Most problems related to the car accident were eventually resolved, but some remain unsettled. Why didn’t the other driver leave his vehicle? And why, on that day—June 13th, 2009, was his car stopped in the middle of the bridge? I may never get an answer to these questions, just as I may never piece together the broken parts of myself. But as unfortunate as that is, coping with my traumatic past is something I can live with because the alternative—not living at all—would be much worse. 

14 thoughts on “The Day I Killed Someone 

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  1. Sometimes things happen that shatter the illusion of the safety of our everyday lives, the contrast between these events and the continuing normality around always cuts deep, replaying in our troubled minds, storing somehow in our bodies….Every time we get broken all the fragments that were us get put back together differently, some grow, some diminish and fade, others shine…we are all just a work in progress in some ways the sum of our scars. You write very eloquently about your experiences in away I don’t think I ever could.

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  2. I’m so sorry you had to endure something so tragic. There was a time that I thought a 2 year old drown in my pool. For the few minutes until my sister-in-law gave CPR and he was revived I knew the feeling you felt. It was beyond describing how I felt just those few minutes while I thought he had died. God bless you!

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  3. What a horrific ordeal! I’m so sorry this happened to you! Try not to be too hard on yourself as it sounds like it could’ve happened to anyone but I’m sure it’s easier said than done. Did your ME start shortly after this?

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  4. You didn’t kill the other driver: his actions did. You could have died, too – and your family could have sued him for stopping in the middle of the road with no hazard lights.

    It is possible he was already dead, sitting in his car, which he managed to bring to a stop in the middle of the road when he had chest pains. Or an aneurysm rupturing. Or anything.

    You will never know – do NOT immediately assume the worst, unless that is the ONLY possibility. There lies PTSD.

    If this still bothers you (person who wrote this), see a therapist and deal with it. Or learn CBT and deal with it yourself, if you can. Your logic is flawed: as soon as you saw someone’s car stopped where there should not be a stopped car, you braked as much as you could. Your actions were the correct ones. His were not.

    Talk back to negative beliefs when they are flawed.

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    1. Hi Alicia. Some people have suggested he was already dead, but the official cause of death was a broken neck from the impact. Although I imagine he could have died from something else first. I don’t think a toxicology report was done because the body was damaged in the fire. So it very well could have been something else first. But if so you would think pulling over to the shoulder would have happened first.

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      1. I’m just pointing out that in the absence of absolute knowledge of what happened right before, you have choices to make about what you will believe.

        Cognitive behavior therapy and similar point out that you don’t have to choose the worst possible outcome to make your decisions, and always going for the negative is a trait that needs to have some sense talked into it.

        I bring myself back to functionality often by talking back to fears and problems, and it is often that I can’t know – and have no evidence the worst case is the right one.

        If you know for SURE, that’s different. And much rarer. Official cause of death is hard to determine under some circumstances; sometimes the coroner will choose a ’cause’ which causes the fewest problems for the family, for example. People think forensic science is perfect. It is not. And is often based on incomplete information – because that’s all that is available.

        Just trying to poke a few holes to let the light and the air in.

        I’m a realist, and an optimist by choice. That’s why I’m having such a hard time myself post-stents, because I’m arguing against a medical establishment which is very positive in its pronouncements, and then I read the papers published, and they are NOT saying the same things.

        Medicine is hugely fuzzy. And very complex.

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      2. He might have pulled over – he might not have. It isn’t a conclusive piece of evidence. Construct yourself a couple of scenarios where he couldn’t or didn’t, and you’ll see the CBT in action. You have to talk back to the thoughts – they FEEL so right, and yet don’t hold up to scrutiny in so many cases.

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  5. Well-written, but what a terrible experience. Do you ever wonder if the shock of this had anything to do with your current health issues?

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    1. Hi Jean. Several people have made the suggestion and I have pondered it myself, but I didn’t get sick until two years after the crash. Although I did hit my head pretty hard on the steering wheel and never had it checked out so there could have been some undiagnosed head trauma and of course emotional trauma.

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