Sunday, June 08, 2003

An adventure of a different kind

It was two in the morning. Our bus was driving northward on the Firooz-Kooh road, a narrow and crooked road that connects Tehran to the northern provinces through the rugged Elborz mountains. Iran's roads are very insecure. In average 50 people die in car accidents each day. That is 18000 people a year. First or second in the world. Some of the accidents are due to the quality of the roads, some due to aggressive driving. Many families have lost a loved one to the unsafe roads and streets. My own grandfather died of being hit by a car 8 years before I was born. Then in 1978 his daughter, my lovely aunt, died in a highway accident leaving a 3 years old son behind to be raised by stepmother. Firooz-Kooh road is one of the most dangerous roads of the country.

It was two after midnight, a very bright night. The moon was so beautiful that night. All the mountains and valleys as far as I could see were covered by silver moonlight. Our target? Golestan forest. We were going to camp there for a couple of days. We were actually an amateur climbing group of roughly 16 boys and girls. This time we had decided to treat ourselves to a fun camping in one of the most beautiful forests of the country. Since it was going to be a fun program we called other friends and gathered 38 people. Every seat on the bus was occupied. I was sitting on the first seat with Maziar, talking. Everybody else was asleep except for four pals who were quietly playing cards at the rear of the bus. Every time we traveled overnight, we used to take turns to sit close to the driver, awaken, to make sure he does not fall asleep. One or two persons for two hours. Then we switched. So here we were, Maziar and I, talking together and to the old driver, having a good time. It was such a new and fancy bus. Other times, Maziar or I used to take the duty of renting a bus. We usually found an old bus. Rental companies do not easily agree to send new buses for such country side trips. A few months before, the bus that Maziar had rented broke in the middle of the way and caused a 3 hour delay, a delay that cost us dearly. This time, however, Babak rented the bus. You cannot imagine how much he bragged about the white fancy new bus that he had managed to rent. We were driving downhill. The driver was pushing the brake paddle too often. At one point we could smell the burnt brake shoes that made us worried. But soon we buried all worries deep under the exciting talks about camping. Abir, the one in charge of the program, had promised we would see a lot of wild life. Maybe even bears. It was going to be a lot of fun, if we had gotten there.

It was two after midnight. Maziar an I were quietly talking, trying not to awake others. Suddenly we heard the driver whispering something. Looked at him at once. He was praying desperately "Ya Abalfazl, Ya Abalfazl!" He was panicking. Meanwhile, he was repeatedly hammering his right foot on the brake, firmly but uselessly. The bus was not running too fast at that time. Suddenly there was a flat field at the side of the road. I saw it. The driver saw it too. Maziar yale at him: "Off the road! to the field!" Had he done that, I thought, the bus might have gotten damaged a little bit but we would be saved. But he didn't do it. His bus was so new and fancy, he didn't dare to do it. Maziar jumped to the middle of the isle shouting, trying to wake people up. He thought they would have more chances to protect themselves if they were awaken in the final seconds. The driver tried to change the gear to one.That is the last chance to control the speed when the brake is not working in a manual car. The gear moved to neutral but he couldn't put it in one! The clutch was also malfunctioning. There was a chaos inside the bus of the people who were just awaken. Our speed was constantly increasing. My eyes was locked on the driver. His right foot hammering the brake, his left foot holding the clutch down, his right hand fighting the gear shift, and his left hand controlling the wheel in the crooked, slopy road. The bus was speeding up rapidly. There was no hope, I thought, these were the last seconds of my life. I was supposed to be frightened at those seconds but you know what? I wasn't. I felt surprisingly calm. Believing that I was about to die within few seconds was not scary at all. It just felt like "Damn it. Is this how I'm going to die?" That simple.

The wrecked bus. Picture was taken the next morning by Maziar, who could still walk.

We didn't die. The driver suddenly rotated the wheel and lead the bus off the road to the valley. Surprisingly, it wasn't a deep valley, it was a dry river bank only about 25 feet below the road level. All the tires broke when we hit the ground. The bus slipped on its stomach for about 300 feet, broke a telephone post and stopped just before hiting the high voltage electricity post. By some miracle the bus did not roll over. By some miracle no one died in that wrecked bus. A lot of fractured bones but no death.

For about a minute or so, I was looking the death in the eyes that night and I am telling you: I am not a fearless man but it wasn't scary.


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