Hell on Wheels

Last August 4, 2000, was a normal commute for Michael Eck. He’d allowed more than two hours for the afternoon drive from his Baltimore home to his job as a forklift operator at an East Petersburg, Pennsylvania, trucking company. A quiet family man, Eck worked nights, giving him time during the day to spend with his wife, Dawn, and his two-year-old daughter, Christina.

The 74-mile drive on Interstate 83 was one Eck had made every workday for 12 years. He knew rush-hour traffic near York, Pennsylvania, would be thick this Friday as people hit the road for the weekend. So far, though, his green Chevrolet Impala was moving smoothly along with the traffic heading north.

Before taking the forklift job, Eck, 44, drove tractor-trailers cross-country, and he sympathized with the truckers around him. I-83 gave drivers, especially those behind the wheels of lumbering 18-wheelers, little margin for error in case of an accident or emergency. Its left and right shoulders were small, making it difficult for stranded motorists to pull over safely. A low concrete barrier divided the narrow four-lane highway. Meanwhile, steep, rocky hillsides closed in on the northbound side, while a bluff to a lake fell away sharply from the southbound lanes.

At about 2:50 p.m., Eck was driving 65 m.p.h. in the left lane, north of Exit 3. In front of him was a blue Peterbilt 18-wheeler, followed by several cars. As they approached the base of a steep hill, Eck saw that the truck, with two earthmovers chained to its trailer, was too heavy to make the steep incline at highway speed.

Yet the trucker wasn’t shifting to the right lane so faster vehicles could move by on the left. Eck decided to pass the truck on the right to avoid being trapped behind slower traffic. He signaled, swung out, passed the truck, signaled again and returned to the left lane.

Climbing the hill, Eck had to decelerate as he approached a slower car ahead. Suddenly he felt a tap at his rear bumper, the kind of contact one might make with another car while maneuvering into a tight parallel-parking space. Eck glanced up to see the Peterbilt’s chrome grille filling his rearview mirror.

It was a slight impact, but there might be damage. Eck and the trucker would have to exchange insurance information. This was the last thing he needed. If he was more than a half-hour late for work, he’d be docked a day’s pay.

Eck knew there was no room on the left shoulder. So, frustrated, he looked to the right, hoping traffic would let up and that he and the trucker could pull off. But the right lane was now clogged with cars.

As the lane cleared, Eck waited for the Peterbilt to merge right. But the trucker wasn’t trying to pull off. What was he doing? Suddenly Eck found out. Bang! With a sickening thud the two bumpers collided, the truck’s steel against the Impala’s plastic. Eck’s mouth went dry with fear.

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The severe impact on the Impala slammed Eck’s seat back on its rails, whipping him like a rag doll. His engine was dead. He tried twisting the steering wheel; it barely budged. The power brakes, too, hardly responded when pressed. He’s intentionally ramming me, Eck thought.

Behind him he could hear the whine of the downshifting gears and the snarl of the diesel engine as the truck surged forward. Once more Eck was whiplashed. Now the 18-wheeler was shoving Eck’s car up the hill like a hockey player pushing a puck. Without power, steering the Impala was barely possible. Its extra-wide tires created drag on the road; it was like the car was driving through wet concrete.

Gripping his steering wheel with his left hand, Eck punched 911 on his cell phone, a hands-free model with a microphone affixed near the driver’s-side sun visor. “I just got rear-ended on 83 three times by a Peterbilt,” Eck said, his voice tight with panic. “Can you help me?”

Dispatcher Vincent Brown at the Pennsylvania State Police barracks near Exit 3 questioned the driver about his position. Eck shouted, “I’m being pushed, literally.”
Trooper Serell Ulrich was in the station and heard the frantic call. “I’ll handle it,” Ulrich told Brown. It was about 2:55 p.m.

Ulrich sped onto the I-83 ramp at Exit 3. Farther north, he came upon a rolling roadblock with rubberneckers from the violent truck-car encounter. Traffic in both lanes was clogged. By his clock, the confrontation was over ten minutes long. Could the driver hang on?

Michael Eck was breathing in ragged gasps, trying to keep the Impala in the left lane. The truck driver continued to surge ahead, smashing into the car’s rear bumper. Each time the car shuddered from the force. Eck knew that his car couldn’t take the punishment much longer. “Where’s that officer?” he yelled into the phone.

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