A life forever changed
Three and a half weeks after nearly dying in a car accident on Interstate 95 in East Lyme, James Clark was wheelchair-bound, had both legs in casts and was somewhere he didn’t want to be — a nursing home.
Clark, then 27, was driving a tractor-trailer south on I-95 on Nov. 2, 2007, when a northbound tanker truck carrying 7,500 gallons of heating fuel swerved out of control and jumped across the highway, striking Clark’s truck head-on and causing a pileup.
The accident killed Lu-Ann Dugas, 54, of East Lyme; Fred Held, 33, of Milford, and tanker driver Peter Derry, 51, of Webster, Mass. Teachers Samirah Clough of Mystic and Lynn Mariani of Stonington were injured. John W. Hampton, then living in Old Lyme and now deceased, was the only person to walk away from the crash.
A state police investigation determined that the cause of the crash, which injured several more and closed the road for hours, was the loss of control by Peter Derry, 51, of Webster, Mass., who died that day. The accident occurred at a curvy, hilly section of highway with several exit and entrance ramps and a lefthand fork in the road leading to I-395.
On that December day at the nursing home, Clark began to see the crash the way he does today.
“I was sitting under a tree. I just had this moment of clarity. I realized that I’m so damn lucky to be alive right now. … There was a girl two doors down from me, 20 years old, that was a quadriplegic because her boyfriend was racing with her in a car and crashed. I’m like, ‘Wow, you are really acting selfish, like (a jerk), because you are eventually going to get the use of your legs back. You’re going to be walking. You should be grateful for these things.’
“I started thinking differently,” Clark said. “I guess maybe there’s a reason why I’m here. You start thinking about things like that. I certainly should be dead. Everyone around me was dead.”
‘It happened so fast’
The day of the crash started as his days on the road usually did. Clark and his pit bull, Tiny, left Long Island around 2:30 a.m. carrying a trailer full of appliances that he would drop off at various stops in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
On his way back to Long Island, traffic was moving steadily, the highway wasn’t congested. He happened to notice that traffic on the other side of the highway was “flowing pretty good.”
As he neared East Lyme he was heading downhill, approaching an overpass that blocked his view of the northbound traffic.
He couldn’t believe what he saw next: The out-of-control northbound truck was careening under the overpass, had broken through a guardrail — “like a hot butter knife through butter” — and was headed in his direction.
“It happened so fast, I wasn’t even able to say a full four-letter word and it was done and over with already,” he said. “I seen a flash. I seen a cab coming towards me. I yelled and that was it. … I didn’t have time to do anything.”
Clark doesn’t remember much after that. He has learned from witnesses that his truck flew 10 feet up in the air, causing the trailer to break free. Troopers pulled him out of the cab. Witnesses said he looked like he had been through a war; his clothes were tattered and his head was bleeding.
Clark came to as emergency responders were putting him on a stretcher near the median. He was confused and couldn’t relay what had just happened.
“I looked over. I seen my truck. I was scared because I didn’t know what had happened. One of the first things that came to my mind was that maybe I fell asleep and I caused the accident, and it was terrifying,” he said.
On his way to the hospital, he remembered that a truck had hit him head on.
“It was a big relief,” he said. “I wasn’t the cause of it. That I didn’t injure people. I wouldn’t have been able to live with that. I never have fallen asleep behind the wheel ever, so that’s why it was so scary to me.”
In a recent interview at his Long Island home, Clark, 35, laughed sheepishly as he explained what he did next: He called his friend Eddie Pierno to pick him up. Clark had a traumatic brain injury, internal bleeding and broken bones, but all he could think about was finding his dog and getting out of Connecticut.
Tiny had survived without a scratch. A motorist, whom Clark later came to know as Vincent, had used his belt as a makeshift leash for Tiny and had waited outside The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich for more than three hours. A security officer in the hospital then held Tiny in an office.
“It’s not that I didn’t pay attention then, but I pay a lot more attention now,” he said.
Clark had surgery in 2009 to help relieve the pain in his back. The operation required the removal of a disc, bone grafting and insertion of a bone spacer, a rod and screws.
He isn’t 100 percent recovered and hasn’t worked for a year, which has been difficult for him. He received a settlement after a lawsuit. A confidentiality agreement prevents him from talking about it.
“Back before the accident, I took a lot of pride in doing physical labor,” Clark said. “I loved it. … I always liked going to work, busting my hump all day and coming home tired.”
He said the accident has taught him not to take anything for granted. He married his wife, Kelly, last August and they plan to move to Pennsylvania and live where he can have the rural lifestyle he’s been craving.
He cautiously looks forward to the future, but he isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Our time isn’t guaranteed …” he said. “You got to make the best of the time that you have. That’s something definitely I learned. In a blink of an eye, you can be gone.”
His dog, Tiny, was stolen two years after the accident. Clark was working at his cousin’s plumbing shop in Elmont, N.Y., when he let Tiny out for a break. Within a minute, the dog was gone. Clark went to the animal control office every day for a month, but Tiny was never found.
“We’ve been through a lot,” he said. “He was a great dog.”
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