BELLEVILLE, Ont. - It's a drizzling, cold afternoon in December and I'm standing in the foyer of the 10-Acre Truck Stop in Belleville, bracing myself for what I'm about to see. I'm here to meet a truc...
WILLING TO FORGIVE: Truck driver Lars Christensen says he’s ready to forgive the teenagers who stole his livelihood.Photo by Adam Ledlow
CONCRETE MISSILES: A piece of concrete is lodged in the windshield of Christensen’s truck. He says if it wasn’t rotten concrete, it would probably have killed him.
BELLEVILLE, Ont. – It’s a drizzling, cold afternoon in December and I’m standing in the foyer of the 10-Acre Truck Stop in Belleville, bracing myself for what I’m about to see. I’m here to meet a truck driver who has been in an accident, which usually wouldn’t faze me, but the words “rock in the face” have me feeling a bit skittish. When the meeting was arranged, all I was told by the driver, Lars Christensen, was that he’s a “pretty big guy.” But given the nature of the accident, my gut tells me his size isn’t what I’ll be noticing.
A few drivers pass by until I get bored and start making conversation with a guy on his way out. We shoot the breeze for a few minutes until I see a driver come in from the rain that I immediately recognize as Christensen. It’s not because his face is pockmarked or disfigured from glass and debris – it isn’t, with only a small cut under his right eye where a piece of glass pushed itself out the night before. It’s not even because of his sheer physical size. His eyes were the giveaway; pained and tired from 11 months of physical and mental recovery since the accident.
His ordeal started in the early evening of Jan. 31, 2006, when Christensen was heading back from a run in Houston, Texas. He was driving under an overpass 38 miles into Louisiana when an as-yet unidentified object came smashing through his windshield, hitting him square in his bespectacled face.
“It was like an explosion went off inside my truck. I knew it wasn’t the tires because nothing went wrong with my steering – and then I couldn’t see,” said Christensen in an interview with Truck News.
With his vision foggy, 25 years of driving experience kicked in and he knew he had to pull over as quickly as possible. Easing off the fuel and hoping no one was beside him, Christensen pulled the wheel to the right until he felt the shoulder and stopped. He vaguely remembers picking up his cell phone and dialing 9-1-1.
“I guess I lost track of time. It could’ve been 10 seconds or it could’ve been 10 minutes before I realized I was pretty badly hurt,” he said. Covered in glass from head to toe, Christensen recalls he looked something like a Christmas tree, ornamented in miniature razor blades. “I had breathed it in. I was coughing blood. I was sneezing blood. I am still to this day picking glass out of my face.”
Yet despite his own physical turmoil, his main concern at the time was for his dog and his truck. When the ambulance arrived, Christensen’s dog, spooked from the “explosion,” worked frantically to protect her owner while the paramedics tried to flush his glass-covered eyes. To compound the situation, the cops on the scene were asking to tow Christensen’s cherished truck away to a secure location. “I wasn’t feeling pain; I was worried about my truck, but how could I say no?”
With both his truck and his dog safely taken care of, Christensen was taken to the hospital, where the events of the evening finally began to unfold. It appeared that a teenaged trio had been breaking off pieces of the brittle overpass and hurling them at the road below. Multiple warnings echoed over the CB, but Christensen hadn’t heard them and was unaware of the dangers ahead. In the end, 15 cars and trucks were hit and shortly after Christensen’s accident, police picked up two 14-year-olds and a 17-year-old near the scene.
When he was released from the ER the next morning, Christensen remembers his face looking as though it had been hit with dozens of small pellets, but his eye was the source of the most intense pain. “My eye was on fire.”
Though the accident still left both Christensen’s face and truck a mess, the fact that the concrete from the overpass was rotten may have actually saved him from a more severe injury, he believes. When the concrete chunk made impact with the windshield, it actually broke apart into several smaller pieces, leaving an eight-inch long section of rock still embedded in the glass. The piece that struck Christensen was about half the size of a human fist, and three smaller pieces were later found in the truck.
After a difficult drive home – completed with a combination of good luck and bottle after bottle of eye drops – Christensen made an appointment with his optometrist, who in turn referred him to an eye surgeon. The prognosis was bleak to say the least.
“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Your commercial driving days are over’,” Christensen says.
With his left pupil fused open and his eyes leaking a thick liquid, his vision had been greatly compromised. Most recently, a neuro-opthamologist has told Christensen the damage may actually be on the inside, perhaps even a brain injury. The result has been months and months of testing and treatment, with Christensen unable to return to work all the while.
Christensen’s psychological pain has also proven to be a constant uphill battle. Since the accident, he says he’s become something of a recluse, admitting that living out in the country as a single trucker has made recovery difficult.
“The emotional hit has been 10 times worse than the physical,” he admits. “Some drivers are going to read this and go, ‘What a pussy; 49 years old and he needs to see a psychiatrist.’ I realized when I got back to Canada after my wreck, I was in serious trouble.”
At the time of the interview, Christensen had been seeing a psychiatrist for nine months to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder; an issue that initially crippled his ability to even drive a car, especially at night or beneath overpasses.
“I am making progress. I have gotten better. I still have some self-doubt. I’m still not happy about going under the overpass, but I’d like to believe the odds of this ever happening again (are poor). I have a better chance of winning the 6/49 than getting another rock through the windshield.”
Though fate seemed to be playing against him the day of the accident, Christensen still considers himself a very lucky guy.
“You can call it fate, destiny, luck, whatever you want, but there were five to seven tractor-trailers involved, two half-tonnes and the rest were cars, and to think that all 15 vehicles that were hit made it to the shoulder without a major collision taking place…I think that whole evening is a gift. I think my injury to my eye is a walk in the park. Nobody hit each other, nobody rolled over. It’s incredible.”
Though Christensen’s injuries were probably the most severe of all parties involved, one woman’s story may have been one of the most psychologically scarring.
Apparently the woman had gone to pick up her daughter from a friend’s house that night, but the two got in a fight and the mother left alone.
As she was passing under the overpass on her way home, a piece of rock the size of a football came crashing through her window and ripped half of the passenger’s seat out the back window of her half-tonne. Christensen vividly remembers the woman’s screams filling the ER.
“She was a basket case,” Christensen says. “Had the daughter gone home with her, it would’ve killed her daughter.”
Though it may pale in comparison to his physical and emotional pain, Christensen’s frustration over the way the incident was handled by authorities has certainly been enough to cause anyone grief. Having heard no more about the fates of the three teenagers after he returned home, he took it upon himself to contact the Louisiana police force. When he called, Christensen was shocked to learn that in the state of Louisiana, if juvenile suspects won’t admit to their crime, they can’t be charged.
“I went ballistic,” Christensen says.
With no charges being laid in a case that injured or damaged the property of 15 people, Christensen admits he initially felt immense anger towards those responsible. But as time has passed, he has reconsidered his stance, mostly due to the overwhelming poverty in the region.
“You have not seen poverty until you’ve been in the deep south of the United States,” he says. “If they were well-off, I’d carve them a whole
new ‘you-know-what,’ but if they were three kids that lived in a shack and were probably lucky to get the smallest bite to eat every day, I’d say, ‘What you did just about took my life. I’m glad that you didn’t. And now that you see what my eye looks like and how hoarse my voice is, you really need to not do this again. You really hurt me. I’ve been unemployed for going on 11 months. You’ve cost me a lot of money because my insurance doesn’t cover a lot of things.’ And I would forgive them.”
But the ‘real’ story coming from the accident – at least as Christensen sees it – is not just about emotional and physical injuries, or even about the power to forgive. It’s about a simple and continued act of kindness from Christensen’s employer, Winnipeg Motor Express.
Christensen signed on as an owner/operator with the carrier in November, 2005, and was only two months into his employment when his accident occurred. Dale Page, a worker with driver services at Winnipeg, somehow located the hospital Christensen was in and called to see if he was okay.
“I don’t think she ever asked about the truck,” Christensen recalls. “They were worried about me, you know?”
After returning home, the company continued to call to check in on Christensen’s situation, but never once pressured him about getting back behind the wheel. On top of that, Winnipeg Motor Express has maintained the fire and theft insurance on his truck as well as his health benefits.
“When you look at the big picture, I’d barely been with them two months and I had a major accident/injury and these people worked with me,” he says. “For a lot of other companies, it would have been easier to basically terminate my contract. I could see them doing this with a guy that’s been there 10, 20 years, who’s got a good track record, but I’m the new kid on the block; fresh, new, virgin material and they’re treating me like I’ve been there for 20 years.”
For a man whose life has been affected so profoundly by one senseless act of violence, it’s difficult to locate any trace of bitterness in him. Instead, overwhelming thankfulness seems to be the prevalent emotion, towards all who have helped him over the past year.
His list of thank-yous is exhaustive: the paramedics who took care of him on-site; the doctors and nurses who looked after him in the hospital; the paramedic’s brother, who saved Christensen a towing charge by moving his truck to a secure location and looked after his dog; National Truck League in London, Ont. for paying his claim in a short period of time and remaining polite and professional; The Edge Benefits in Newmarket, Ont. for processing his business overhead insurance quickly. The list goes on.
But the main source of Christensen’s thankfulness is still for Winnipeg Motor Express employees like Page, Dave MacKenzie, Howard Sired and Vanessa Trudeau, for keeping their promises and taking care of their employees.
“They’re owed a pat on the back and I’m proud to give them that,” Christensen says. “I want other owner/operators to know that there actually are some good people out there that look after us, to put forward a positive message besides just getting a brick in the face. I know it sounds funny, but I’d like to spread some good news. It took the accident for me to realize just how good a company I put my truck with, which is kind of crazy.”
Yet all these feelings of gratitude can’t help Christensen escape reality. It’s now been over a year since his accident and the physical battles still continue.
A wearisome cough from inhaled glass nags at him constantly, while limited peripheral vision, photosensitivity, and a permanently dilated left pupil have left his work future uncertain.
His finances have become more and more stretched as time wears on, but still, Christensen remains ever the optimist and hopes to return to his place behind the wheel soon. But for now he will wait, wiling away the hours in his country home, where on his desk a rotting hunk of concrete reminds him of his own fragility and his quest to make both mind and body whole again.