I Didn’t Sign Up For This

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It’s a late morning in March 1996 and I’m kneeling in front of a casket, talking to Billy. I’m telling him that I wanted him to still be here and how much I appreciated the chance I had to meet and get to know him. How I wished that he was at home, sitting on his couch in front of the TV with his wife, eating pie that she’d made and baked earlier, with ice cream, something I knew they loved doing together after the day’s work was done. I told him that I was sorry and that I felt responsible. And then I ran out of things to say.

At 9:37 in the morning four days before, the number displaying on my pager was unfamiliar. It began with (312), which I recognized as Chicago. I called the number back, expecting a customer to answer, as most had my pager number.

Instead, a captain with the Chicago fire department answered.

“We’ve got a problem here,” he informed me, “one of your trucks is laying on its side on the Eisenhower, eastbound between the Kostner and Pulaski exits. What’s in this thing?”

I went into search mode, going through my schedule in my mind to figure out who it was.

“You still there?” he barked, breaking the short silence. “The truck number is 301, what’s in this thing? Is it hazardous?”

That’s Billy’s truck. Where was Billy coming from? Got it. Morton, in Ringwood. He was headed to LRS on Stoney Island.

“Ahh…..no sir,” I stammered “It is a latex wash water. It’s non-hazardous. Is the driver OK”

“OK Good. It hasn’t leaked anything yet. They took your driver to the hospital already. I don’t know his condition. I need you to get a truck here to get this thing pumped off so we can stand it up, hook it and get it the hell off the highway. How long will that take?”

I needed a little time.

“Can I get that figured out and call you back ASAP sir?”

“10-4. Call me back ASAP.” Then he hung up.

I met Billy when I went to work with a company called A&J Cartage. It was 1992. I started there after I’d been fired from my previous job. Billy was sort of the lead man for a sludge-hauling contract that A&J had with a big wastewater treatment plant in Milwaukee, known as MMSD. He was a tiny man to look at, short and very thin. The kind of guy who was always tugging at his pants to keep them up, even though his belt was ratcheted as tightly as it could be. He had a full head of hair, but it was thin and wispy like mine. When he wasn’t wearing a hat, he was frequently trying to put it back in place with his hand, like my neighbor Phil would do, before his chemotherapy treatments began.

Billy’s smile was engaging and infectious. His eyes were bright. In conjunction with his smile, they conveyed kindness with a hint of naughty-ness. If Billy wasn’t wearing his dentures, he was missing enough teeth that you couldn’t help but notice. In a way you wouldn’t expect, that added to his charm.

He wasn’t a polished guy, but Billy was genuine, comfortable with who he was. Some guys think that they can bully a small guy like Billy. But he wasn’t afraid to yell at, or stand up to, anyone. He was also willing to work hard, go wherever he was needed and do whatever he was asked. Unlike some of the others at A&J, Billy didn’t need to have work pointed out, or explained, to him. He knew it when he saw it; and knew what to do with it as well. He impressed me.

It took me 10 minutes to make the schedule changes to free up Scott and Butch so that they could get to the scene and pump off Billy’s tanker. I let the Captain know that we’d have trucks on the scene in 45 minutes to an hour. “Have them call me when they get here. I’ll get them next to the truck.”

I drove to the scene, filled with anxiety, and fear, imagining the unpleasantness of what had unfolded, what was waiting for me. ‘Would Billy be OK, would we be in trouble, would our insurance work, could I handle it, would I cry?’

When I arrived, Butch and Scott had already started emptying Billy’s tanker, which was straddling the left shoulder and far left lane of the road. It was laying on its driver’s side, wheels facing south, like it was taking a nap. The traffic was sneaking by on the right shoulder. People were angry and cursing at us. The highway was visibly scraped for more than 100’ directly west of the scene, mapping the trail of the tanker’s slide to its current resting place. A Wrecker truck was in the center lane. It was well named for the work it was doing at the moment. Another was positioned to the rear. Two yellow, nylon straps had been wrapped around the tanker’s barrel and attached to one of the Wrecker’s winches. The other was attached to it as well and would serve as the resistance against the first one’s pull.

When the tanker was empty, the wrecker drivers worked their rigs together, gently lifting and rotating the tanker at the same time to get it upright before lowering it down gently onto its tires and landing gear. From the south, on the passenger side, the tanker looked normal, like nothing had happened. From the north, it looked like someone had practiced on it with a demolition ball. One of the wreckers re-positioned grabbed and lifted the tanker from its front and dragged it away to an impound yard.

Despite how peaceful the tanker looked resting on its side, the scraped highway wasn’t the only evidence of the accident’s violence. In most truck roll over’s, the tractor and trailer go over together; and stay together. They look pretty much like they do when they’re driving down the road, only they’re not. This one wasn’t like most. Billy’s tractor was nowhere to be found on the road.

When Billy called me about a driving job we had advertised in the paper, I was surprised to hear from him. We’d only known each other briefly (I’d only made it a month at A&J before quitting) and hadn’t talked in over a year. He hadn’t driven for some time either, having been promoted to a supervisory role. He told me he was unhappy. That he wanted a change and that he thought that driving would be the right change for him. He wasn’t the perfect fit (who is), but we needed a driver and it was tough to resist his charm, and ability.

The eastbound and westbound lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway are separated by tracks and stations for the Metra Rail Blue Line service that connects the airport with downtown and the western city neighborhoods. Large concrete barriers topped with chain-link fencing, like you’d see at a race track, serve as a barrier between the traffic and the trains. Just east of where the tanker had been, a large portion of the fencing was missing or mangled. That was where Billy’s tractor climbed the barrier and left the road. You could see it, hundreds of feet ahead. It had come to rest on its left side, up against a small storage shed. It wasn’t on the tracks, so the trains were running as usual. Its roof was collapsed, and its windows smashed. Its wheels were no longer attached to the frame but instead were up against the concrete wall a short distance away, as if a giant had plucked it from the highway, then crushed and ripped it apart before tossing it aside like trash.

The passenger side door was missing. That’s where the medical team got him out.

When I was done with all the forms, reports and interviews the police and fire personnel required, and had called my insurance company with the news, I was at Cook County Hospital, where Billy had been taken by the ambulance. He was in the ICU and they wouldn’t let me see him. The nurse told me that he was pretty banged up and that they were doing everything they could. Having seen where he’d come from, she wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t expected. Billy’s wife came to the hospital with her sister and we comforted each other the best we could for me meeting them for the first time, under these circumstances.

Billy died the next morning. They told us that he died peacefully. As it was clear that there had been no peace in what he went through to get there, that seemed hard to believe.

We never found out exactly how Billy’s accident happened. Beyond knowing that the tractor broke free from the trailer, and that it flipped over a number of times before ending up where it did, we never would. The DOT inspected what remained of the truck and trailer and determined it had been mechanically sound. Billy’s log book was up to date.

We wanted to believe that someone had cut him off or stopped suddenly, or unnecessarily, in front of him, causing him to take drastic and evasive action, like a fighter pilot with a missile on his tail, and losing control of his rig in the process. There was speculation, but no direct evidence or witnesses to confirm that, the Police told me later. He also could have been distracted by a hundred different things, fallen asleep, or who knows what else.

After I finished talking to Billy, I moved on to the receiving line where his wife, teenage daughter and other close relatives that I hadn’t met before were standing, thanking those who came to Billy’s service. What do you say? I was 27 and hadn’t had a close family member die, let alone someone who’d worked with me; for me. I was lost. This wasn’t part of anyone’s plan.

I’ve been told that people like finality in things. I know I do. There was no finality to Billy’s death, to exactly what happened, unless you created something on your own. My finality was that I’d put him in a situation that caused him to crash – and die. It would be natural – and understandable – for his family to hold me responsible too, I thought. I might a little, or maybe more than a little, if I were them.

I hadn’t signed up for this. No one had. But I was in charge. This happened on my watch. It was the first tragedy.


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Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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