Hell on Wheels

August 4, 2000, was a normal commute for Michael Eck. Until it wasn't.

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.

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.

With the speedometer dead, he estimated they were rolling 40 m.p.h. uphill, 50 on the flats. As he approached Exit 7, escape appeared impossible. The stream of traffic to the right was too thick to change lanes. With a stiff steering wheel and almost no brakes, the task was even harder.

Yet when Eck suddenly saw a break in the right-lane traffic, he seized the chance. Throwing his whole body into it, he yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. The car veered into the lane, and Eck’s chest heaved with relief. But with a stab of terror, he watched the Peterbilt shift right, too, and felt it slam into him with bone-crunching force.

Eck had lost count of the collisions in his confrontation with the truck. In a shrill voice tinged by desperation, he screamed at Brown over the phone line, “He hit me again.”

Boxed in by the traffic, Ulrich finally reached the narrow left shoulder. With only inches of clearance between his car and the concrete barrier, he crawled north. The incident between the driver and trucker was now over 15 minutes in duration.

With the Peterbilt’s front bumper now hard up against the Impala’s bumper, the trucker began to swerve, sweeping the car back and forth in front of it. Ahead on a steep hill, Eck saw another tractor-trailer moving slowly in the right lane. He could visualize what would happen next. The Peterbilt was pushing him toward the rear of the other truck. The gap between the two tractor-trailers and the powerless Impala was closing fast.

I’m going to die, Eck thought. He couldn’t let himself be crushed, but how could he escape? He checked the rearview mirror — there was traffic in the merge and right lanes, but the left lane was clear. Eck gripped the door handle. Before he hit that truck, he would pop the door and bail out.

Then the sheer desperation of the idea seized him. If he survived hitting the road at 40 m.p.h., the Peterbilt might still run him over. But at least there was a chance he’d survive the nightmare. Staying in the car, Eck believed, was certain death.

The truck ahead loomed larger. Eck’s fingers twitched on the door handle. Ten seconds, nine, eight … Suddenly his attention was drawn to a flash of light speeding past on the right.

Trooper Ulrich had broken free of the traffic and shot up the roadway. He saw the 18-wheeler, the Impala in front of it. Ulrich raced past and flagged the vehicles over to the side of the road. The truck braked and the Impala drifted to a stop. Ulrich got out of his patrol car. The idling truck’s engine growled like a beast struggling against its restraints.

As he cautiously approached the Peterbilt, the trooper saw that the driver was a slight, stooped 65-year-old man with thinning white hair. “What’s going on?” Ulrich demanded.
James Trimble was shaking with rage. “This guy cut me off.” Then he added in a hot surge of anger, “So I hit his car to get him out of my way.”

Ulrich later determined that Trimble had smashed and pushed Eck for 12 miles up I-83. This outburst of uncontrolled road rage lasted more than 20 minutes.

Trimble was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and numerous driving offenses. The trucker pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated assault and six lesser charges, agreeing to undergo psychological evaluation and to surrender forever his commercial driver’s license.

Trimble declined Reader’s Digest‘s request for an interview. But at his March 2001 sentencing, he claimed Eck repeatedly cut in front of him and slammed on his brakes as if intent on forcing him to hit him. He also said he called for assistance on his CB radio, and that he wasn’t aware Eck’s car was disabled. Trimble was sentenced to a prison term with a maximum of nearly two years.

Despite the physical and psychological battering Michael Eck endured on I-83, he gave up his forklift job and now drives tractor-trailers. “I often see motorists driving in ways I consider inappropriate,” he says. “But I would never dream of taking vigilante justice, because I’ve relived the nightmare of what happened to me a thousand times.”

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