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All that Shoemaker remembers after his Bronco veered right were his headlights illuminating the roadside reflectors as he bucked over the berm, then his gunning the Bronco as he turned the steering wheel left, fighting to get the truck back onto the road, and finally the violent rolling over to the right, "over and over and over," as the vehicle tumbled through the dry dirt and grass of the embankment. The rest was darkness: Windows shattered and popped out; the back door broke open; the roof collapsed; his scalp was gashed and his spine was dislocated at the base of his neck, between his sixth and seventh cervical disks. A one-way (westbound), two-lane feeder road, which provides access to the Foothill Freeway, runs along the bottom of that embankment. The Bronco bounced to a stop in the left lane of that road, landing upright and perpendicular to traffic, its driver's side facing the oncoming cars. And a 42-year-old electronics executive named Terry Fisher was heading toward the Bronco at 60 miles an hour.
Fisher was out doing errands with his 14-year-old daughter, April. In fact, he had just slipped onto the feeder road when he saw the dust shroud in the distance. He was beginning to slow down when suddenly, right in front of him, he saw the red of the Bronco's taillights and the yellowish glow of its dome light. Fisher hit his brakes hard and veered to the right. "If his battery had come loose with all the tumbling he did and he'd had no lights, I'd have T-boned him," Fisher says.
He parked on the right shoulder and dashed across the road to the driver's side of the Bronco. The window was open; the driver was motionless. The door was mangled, and Fisher struggled to force it open. "I bent it back to the point where I think I broke the hinges," he says. Peering inside, Fisher saw this little man he did not recognize, blood all over his face and his body strangely contorted, with his legs twisted pretzellike around each other. His chin was tucked at a severe angle on his chest, and his head was under the top of the steering wheel.
"That's the first thing I noticed," Fisher says, "that, Jesus, there's something wrong with his neck; nobody could put their head at that angle. He looked like a contortionist. The first thing I did was take his seat belt off and untwist his legs, and then I loosened his pants so he could breathe. He wasn't breathing. I tried to figure where the blood was coming from, and I saw a big cut on his head. I picked up a sweater lying on the floor and set that on the top of his head to hold the bleeding down and then wiped his face with it to get the blood off. He had so much damn blood, and I thought he was dead. Then I tilted his bucket seat back a little bit and lifted his head back gently, because I assumed he had a neck injury, and he still wasn't breathing."
Fisher was not alone. Drivers slowed down as they passed him—"Do you need a doctor?" they yelled—but no one helped him. At one point, in fact, a man parked and climbed out of his car but refused Fisher's pleas for help: "No way!" the man shouted. "I'll keep the cars off you, but I ain't gettin' close to that accident." The man stayed to direct traffic. Byrd had pulled off the freeway immediately after the Bronco disappeared and phoned for help at a roadside call box. Then she walked down the embankment to help divert traffic, and she picked up the golf clubs that were strewn about. "There were little horse figures on the golf-club covers," she says.
Fisher worked alone. He had tried talking to the bloodied figure from the moment he came to his side. "Can you move your fingers? You'll be all right. Can you hear me?" There was never a response. "I remember vividly that he had little tears in his eyes where it looked like he was crying, and I thought, Maybe he can hear me. I said to him, 'Are you O.K.? Move your fingers.' I had my right hand on top of his head, holding that sweater on the cut, and then I let go of the sweater and slid my hand down and pinched his nose and put my ear up against his mouth to see if I could hear any breathing, and I could not. I also put my ear on his heart; I couldn't hear a heartbeat. I put my ear to his mouth one more time before I was going to do mouth-to-mouth and wiped the blood off his face a second time, because I was trying to decide, Am I going to give this guy CPR or not? He might have AIDS. I didn't know him from Joe Blow. Why should I take a chance with my life when this guy is already dead?"
Shoemaker's will to survive had been misjudged before. In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1931, in a two-room adobe shack in the dusty, one-horse west Texas town of Fabens, Shoemaker had been born so small, at one pound, 13 ounces—and with tiny, clawlike hands and a full head of black hair—that his mother, Ruby, thought he looked like a drowned rat. Doc McClain, who handled the delivery, had spanked him on the rear but couldn't get a sound. He had set the baby on the bed and declared, "That will never live." The boy's grandmother Maudie Harris had swept him up, washed him in the sink, swaddled him in a doll's blanket, lit the wood stove and set him in a shoe box on the open oven door. Two soundless hours later, Ruby had awakened, thinking that she had heard a field mouse screeching. It had only been the boy, at the unlikeliest beginning of a rich, most unlikely life. And now here he was, nearly 60 years later, wedged into a crushed piece of metal on a road in Southern California, with a total stranger leaning over him, ear to his mouth, listening....
"And then I heard a little gasp of air," Fisher says. "I thought, God, maybe he was just passed out and he'll start moving. But nothing like that happened. No response at all. And that's when I pushed on his chest cavity, and I got a little bit of an exhale. From that point on, he kind of developed it into a rhythm. I'd hear a little something from him, then I'd push in, hear something, and push in...."
Shoemaker's feeble breaths that night set him upon a struggle that has enriched his legend as the tough, unyielding stoic who has battled repeatedly to return to racing. In the hours after an ambulance whisked Shoemaker off to Glendora Community Hospital, his close friend and physician, Robert Kerlan, warned Bill's wife, Cindy, who was visiting friends in Ohio, that her husband might not make it through the night. Friends gathered in the waiting room, dreading the hospital's latest news update, which throughout the night never included a mention of paralysis. Finally, around 4:30 a.m., almost eight hours after Shoemaker arrived at the emergency room, Kerlan consulted with attending doctors, walked into the waiting room and announced to those keeping vigil, "He doesn't have any voluntary movement at this time, in either his arms or his legs."
Bill Shoemaker was a quadriplegic.