Sometimes the picture says it all.
For Kaleb Whitby, the picture says a little too much.
He’d rather not think about it — the semi-trucks flattening his Chevy Silverado like a panini press.
Amid the tangled steel after the predawn crash near Baker City sat Whitby: intact, trapped and full of questions.
“Thank God that I’m still alive,” Whitby said. “Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”
More than 100 people were involved in the Saturday morning pileup on Interstate 84, about 33 miles east of Baker City. At least three separate collisions involving more than 20 vehicles, most of them semi-trucks, injured a dozen people.
All 12 were initially treated at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City. The most severely injured was transferred to OHSU Hospital in Portland and listed in critical condition. Six others remained hospitalized Saturday afternoon: Two were in stable condition in Baker City, and four were transferred to a sister hospital in Boise.
Black ice, heavy winds, fog and cold weather combined into what were extremely hazardous conditions.
Oregon State Police Sgt. Kyle Hove said there have been plenty of bad crashes on I-84. Nine people died in a charter bus crash in 2012 near Pendleton. But the photos from this incident are dramatic, and telling.
Hove estimated 50 vehicles were trapped on the eastbound stretch of highway but then lost count. He said he was distracted by the 100 or so people on the scene, plus 10 troopers and emergency personnel.
“I think we’re fortunate that there weren’t any fatalities here,” Hove said.
None, perhaps, feels more fortunate than 27-year-old Kaleb Whitby.
Whitby had to be in Council, Idaho, by 9 a.m. Mountain Time. He left his pregnant wife and their 2-year-old son back in Washington’s Tri-Cities area — Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. The farmer had been on the road for a while, and still had more than 100 miles to go. He had two truckloads of cattle waiting for him in Council.
Headed up a slight hill into a curve, Whitby decided to pass the semi-truck in front of him, but then thought better of it. The fog was too thick. He backed off.
When he rounded the curve and started descending, Whitby saw the semi again — but this time it was jackknifed across the interstate. He swerved to the right, but ended up hitting the back end of the trailer. It flipped him around, and instantly his truck stalled — leaving him splayed out with his passenger side facing oncoming traffic.
Then the headlights of an oncoming semi-truck filled the window frame.
“I just braced and hoped that everything would be all right,” Whitby said.
He prayed, and wondered if it was his time. Ten seconds went by.
The truck bore down on him.
After the semi slammed into him, Whitby opened his eyes to the sight of shattered glass. The steering column was lodged in his right hip.
He was upright again and still in the driver’s seat. But the truck as he knew it was gone.
“I just kept telling myself to calm down,” Whitby said.
He took out his Leatherman pocketknife to cut away his seat belt and dislodge the steering column from his side.
He shouted for help.
Sergi Karplyuk was already pretty familiar with I-84 and how dicey it could get in bad weather.
The 32-year-old trucker had been driving professionally only for two months, and the trip from Pasco to Boise was going slowly.
As Karplyuk navigated the same curve and slight descent Whitby traveled minutes earlier, a semi-truck wall met him, blocking the entire road.
Karplyuk swerved left and struck the guardrail.
His truck disabled, Karplyuk got out of the cab.
That’s when he saw the barrier wasn’t one semi-truck, but two. Sandwiched in between them –- Kaleb Whitby.
Good thing I didn’t hit the trailer smack in the middle, Karplyuk recalled thinking. That guy would’ve been dead.
Update: The freeway has been reopened.
The two men who started their journey near the Tri-Cities in Southeast Washington were the final drivers in the pileup that made national news Saturday and brought together strangers in the predawn January cold.
Karplyuk asked Whitby if he could snap a picture of his steel sandwich, the farmer looking sideways at the camera with remarkable calm.
He could finally relax, Whitby said, knowing that no other semi-truck was barreling down the hill toward him.
About 30 minutes after flipping his truck, Whitby was free and among the sea of others who had largely escaped serious injury. He and Karplyuk pitched in to help other travelers and the stream of emergency personnel who arrived afterward. Hove credited onlookers for pitching in, saying their work might have saved lives.
Afterward, Whitby went to the hospital for a checkup.
“I’ve got two Band-Aids on my right ring finger,” he said. “And a little bit of ice on my left eye.”
His parents picked him up, and they planned to head back to the Tri-Cities. He said he can’t wait to hug his wife and son.
He doesn’t know what to think about Saturday morning.
“That was my first accident,” Whitby said.