Lucky to be Alive

Two women walk away from collisions with a rock slide that could have killed them

December 7, 2005

Nilsa Zeman, 42, was returning from the funeral of her friend Sunday night when at 9:11 p.m. Interstate 84 seemed to explode in front of her.

Dust devoured her windshield.

She felt her Ford Explorer’s tires rolling on mud.

She thought about slamming on the brakes.

“And then I realized I was crashing into rock and I was going to die,” she said, while recuperating at her Hood River home.

But Zeman didn’t die.

When she climbed out of the Explorer, she saw boulders and people everywhere.

“Once everything had stopped, I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m still alive,” Zeman said. “It sounds corny, I know. But that’s what I thought.”

Up ahead, she saw the Dodge Intrepid she had been following. It was sitting on its side on a large boulder, twisted and mangled, like a dog’s chewed-up toy.

Emergency crews were there within minutes.

What happened?

Seconds before Zeman crashed, tons of basalt broke free from the southern cliffside near Exit 37 and fell about 30 feet to the asphalt, exploding like shrapnel. Some of the boulders were the size of cabins.

The basalt covered 30 yards of freeway and broke through the cement barrier dividing the eastbound traffic from the westbound traffic.

Ten years ago – February 1996 – and two miles away, two flooding streams transported an entire meadow of mud onto Interstate 84 and reduced a century-old house to shattered walls.

“The cause of that is totally different than this,” said David Thompson, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “With this slide, there is a noticeable fracture along the rock. The freeze and thaw might have exacerbated this rock fall. But all of it boils down to the fact that we built a road in a mountain area where erosion is constantly going on. The fact of the matter is, rock fall can happen anywhere, anytime in mountainous terrain.”

As medical workers loaded Zeman into an ambulance and raced her to Legacy Mt. Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Cascade Locks Firefighters and other rescuers worked to free the driver of the Intrepid, Janice Tuimavave, 22, the vehicle’s sole occupant, from the twisted piece of red metal.

Legacy admitted Zeman, x-rayed and checked her for fractures, strains, sprains, cuts and a concussion.

Medical staff identified an acute cervical strain and a neck sprain, prescribed pain killers and then promptly released her.

The hospital also released Tuimavave with minor injuries shortly after admitting her.

Four months earlier, Zeman’s husband Michael, owner of Zeman’s Music, was travelling south on Highway 35 when a Mazda Miata bumped his bumper and sent him tumbling into a ditch near Smiley’s Red Barn.

He suffered similar injuries: a neck sprain and strain. But he also strained his thoracic, lumbar and cervical areas.

He just returned to work as a builder a few weeks ago and is still going to physical therapy three times a week.

“My left side is still a little numb, even today,” he said. “My neck muscles, my back muscles. My legs.”

Bob Shaner, a tow truck driver at River’s Edge Towing, was sleeping at 1:30 a.m. when a phone call yanked him out of sleep.

He picked up a tow truck and headed through the night toward the rock fall.

“You can imagine what that looked like at 2:30 in the morning,” he says, swinging the River’s Edge junkyard gate open to reveal the damaged Intrepid and Explorer. “When you roll into something like that, it’s an eerie sight.”

“This (Intrepid) was on top of all the rocks,” he explains. “It was on its side. Wheels facing us.”

The gas tank was ruptured, leaking gas all over the interstate.

“I just didn’t know how she lived through it,” he said.

Shaner and two other River’s Edge tow truck drivers lifted the torn Intrepid with cables and swung it to the asphalt.

They loaded it onto a tow truck from there.

At noon the next day, Nilsa Zeman is lounging on a couch next to a window with an impressive view of Mount Hood staring into her log home.

She’s holding a phone to her, translating last night’s experience to a reporter from The Oregonian.

She’s already talked to KGW 8, Fox and some other news station.

In another 20 minutes a reporter and cameraman from KATU News Channel 2 will knock on her front door.

Earlier this morning, Zeman was describing the accident to her Colorado-based insurance agent, when her image popped up on her agent’s television.

A few minutes after her interview with The Oregonian ends, the phone rings again.

It’s her sister, Zeman mouths to her mother, Toni Wippolt.

“Did you watch the news?

“You gotta put it on. I’m a celebrity today,” she jokes.

Her mother looks at her: “I just can’t believe they walked away – both of them,” she says.

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