The Great Hope

From almost any tragedy, there appear stories that inspire us or make us wonder about the grander scheme of things. These accounts give us hope that we can continue to move forward.

The bridge collapse on Interstate 40 near Webbers Falls, Okla., was a horrible event that resulted in the unexpected deaths of 14 people. More than 500 feet of the structure gave way after a towboat pushed a barge into a bridge support. It was a tragedy in every sense of the word. The stories of those who were killed, those who survived and those who are considered heroes, give us cause to reflect.

Take Rodney Tidwell, for example. The truck driver from Ripley, Miss., told CNN that – with the exception of going through weigh stations – he never wore a seat belt. But on the day his tractor-trailer, which was loaded with water hoses, plunged more than 60 feet off the interstate bridge, he was wearing his safety belt. “I had my seat belt on for the first time yesterday,” the lucky-to-be-alive driver said the day after the May 26 catastrophe.

Tidwell was pulled from the Arkansas River by a couple of men who were taking part in a fishing tournament. Fishermen in another boat pulled James Bilyeau from certain death. The Conway, Ark., trucker was trapped by the current under a barge, according to news reports.

One of the anglers-turned-rescuers saved a second trucker when he shot a flare, from a flare gun on his boat more than six stories below, into an 18-wheeler’s windshield as the unsuspecting driver approached the bridge drop-off. According to CNN, the driver hit his brakes and got the truck stopped with the front wheels hanging over the edge. The quick-thinking sharpshooter was fisherman Alton Wilhoit, who helped pull Tidwell to safety.

There are also the stories of the 14 people who weren’t as lucky. They included a law enforcement official and his wife, a U.S. Army captain, a young couple and their 3-year-old daughter, a man and woman who had been married for almost 40 years – and Paul Tailele.

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According to The Oklahoman, Tailele, 39, a truck driver from Magna, Utah, was talking with his 14-year-old daughter on a cell phone just as he approached the bridge. “I’m at this bridge,” he told his daughter. “I’ve gotta go.” Those were the last words his daughter heard. Seconds later, Tailele and his tractor-trailer loaded with books plunged into the muddy waters of the Arkansas River.

What makes this tragic story so amazing was his actions three weeks earlier. His ex-wife, Ronette, reported that he had taken out a $300,000 life insurance policy. He named Ronette, whom he still lived with, and his two children as the beneficiaries.

Some people believe that fate or divine intervention sometimes sets the course of events in our lives. Others believe we are the masters of our own destiny and we chart our own course with free will. Regardless, actions before and after life-changing events often lead us to ponder the hows and whys. I recently had a tragic event in my life when I lost a close family member in an accident. I listened to others close to my loved one relate to me things that were said and done just prior to the tragedy that raised questions as to whether fate played a part in the events that unfolded. I just don’t know.

I miss my mother every day, but I try to take comfort in the fact that she lived a sometimes difficult, but good, clean life, and she set an example for me to follow as I raise my children.

Paul Tailele was a man who loved his children so much that he still lived with his ex-wife to be close to his kids. “We weren’t good mates,” Ronette told The Oklahoman, “but we were good parents.” She said her ex-husband scheduled his cross-country routes so he could attend his daughter’s basketball games and his son’s football games.

I’m an optimist. I believe that we can learn from mistakes to prevent greater tragedies. We also can take inspiration from those who were heroic and we can learn something from the lives of those who made great sacrifices.