The fog -- an impenetrable blanket of gray in the winter morning darkness -- wrapped its heavy mist around the stalled, disoriented driver. But piercing the young man's senses was the smell of diesel fuel, shards of broken glass and the beam of swiftly approaching headlights.
"I looked out my passenger window and all I could see were the semi's lights coming in the fog," Kaleb Whitby said as he remembered his realization of what was headed straight toward his already heavily damaged Silverado pickup. "It was a semi trying to brake an 80,000-pound vehicle going down a hill on black ice."
It had been the mid-January slippery black ice on Highway 84 just outside of Baker City, Ore., that put the Mesa, Wash., rancher into the path of the approaching semi-truck and trailer. Only moments before, Kaleb had braked and swerved toward the guardrail in an effort to miss another sliding semi-truck just ahead on the roadway.
"As soon as I saw it, I tried to steer away," Kaleb said, recalling the unnerving scene of an out of control semi-truck straight ahead. "I braced myself, said a prayer and then I hit the trailer and flipped around. My lights went off, everything went black."
Shut down in the frigid 2015 winter gloom, the front of his vehicle was slammed against the semi-truck's trailer, the pickup bed extending into the adjoining left lane. In a matter of seconds, another tractor-trailer rig coming down the hill was upon him.
"There's no time to process, remove my seatbelt or get out," said the husband and father of a young child. "I tucked my head and braced for impact thinking, 'Is this the way I'm going to leave?' "
The semi-truck and trailer, unable to stop, slid toward Kaleb's pickup. At impact the semi tore through metal, the ear-spitting sound mixed with downshifting gears.
In the darkness, hope had slipped away.
With two semi-trucks stopped and now angled closely side by side, the crushed pickup in between was barely visible. Any chance for the driver's survival had disintegrated in the final crash.
"One driver didn't even come around (to check) because he didn't want to see the mess," Kaleb said with emotion. "He figured nobody was alive."
But Kaleb started yelling for help while he sat with the dashboard on his knees, the steering wheel pushed down against his right hip and his feet wedged beneath him. The only thing left of his pickup truck was the driver's seat in the cab.
A shocked semi-driver came to his rescue.
"To get me out, he had to maneuver my foot that was trapped," Kaleb said. "There was a small space where the buckled front door and back cab door formed a "V" allowing room to reach in. "I was then able to free my other foot."
Through that same opening, Kaleb slid across shattered glass and onto the pavement, his jacket covering his face with gloved hands.
"A lot of first responders asked where the body was of the guy in the pickup," Kaleb said with a half-smile. "I'd raise my hand and their eyes would open wide and they'd say, 'No way!' Every single person said I was lucky to be alive."
The Whitby Farms employee isn't quick to attribute his astonishing escape from injury to luck -- an accident he walked away from with only two small cuts on his hands in a 26-vehicle pileup.
"The thing I keep telling myself is to remember the grace of God, being protected and to not forget that," Kaleb said, reflecting on his faith and close call. "Now I'm trying to live more righteously, praying more often and being grateful."
A forever-grateful man who on a fog-filled January morning, clearly saw the hand of God.
(Lucy Luginbill is a career television producer-host and the Spiritual Life editor for the Tri-City Herald. In her column, she reflects on the meaning of her name, "Light Bringer." If you have a story idea for Light Notes, contact her at email@example.com.)
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