Butterfly Wings

John Latta
Executive Editor
[email protected]

And then they were gone.

In a handful of terrifying seconds three people died. Luis Gonzales, 35, a trucker from Muldrow, Okla., his daughter Nicole, 11, and son Nicholas, 3. It took as long as it takes a tractor hauling 30,000 pounds to crumple and explode in flames when it leaves an overpass on U.S. Highway 75 in Howe, Texas, slams into a guard rail at somewhere between 55 miles per hour and 70 mph, then crashes into the wing wall of a bridge and rolls down an embankment.

You may have read the story in April. Police found little Nicole’s hands on the wheel in the wreckage. Her father was found in the sleeper and her baby brother on the cab’s floor. Did she drive, rolling along on cruise? Or did she desperately grab the wheel for just a few seconds when her father had a heart attack, trying to steer, her legs not long enough to reach the brakes that were never applied? We may never know exactly what happened.

Sgt. John Cherry of the Howe Police Department says Gonzales’ widow told him her husband had not been feeling well and had complained of chest discomfort the day before he drove south from Muldrow heading for San Antonio. A preliminary autopsy also revealed that Gonzales had undergone open heart surgery, something his employer didn’t know, says Cherry. And, says the policeman, the driver hadn’t had a lot of sleep in the previous days.

Friends said Gonzales loved his kids and having them ride with him. One family friend told a reporter that the children went on the trip because “the baby wanted to go with him, and Nicole said she’d go and help take care of the baby.” But, she said, “There’s no way that Luis would ever let her drive. The police chief was saying its presumable Nicole was driving. Well, it’s presumable he had a heart attack and she was trying to get help.”

Looking for a cause or apportioning blame is a job for investigators. Anything they find might teach us lessons that make us safer. But whatever happened, think of the void in that truck driving family.

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This tragedy is a reminder that we are all flawed human beings, and we make mistakes and misjudgments. It reminds us that trucking is a tough, often dangerous industry. It reminds us that we all tempt fate every day. It also shows us how, sometimes, something that we haven’t correctly entered into our calculator brains, or something happening over the brow of the hill we aren’t even aware of, can create chaos in our lives. A twist, a turn of fate, and it could have been another driver and maybe his family.

There’s a relatively new theory in mathematics called chaos theory. It goes something like this: you can try and predict how a generally unpredictable system will work by making calculations based on all the data you can get. But a slight change in any of those data after you’ve got it all figured in can roll around like a pinball and bang against all of your other calculations, and the result is something that’s nothing like what you expected. A chaos theory pioneer meteorologist in the 1960s working on predicting weather patterns came up with this question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Trucking can be a tough way to make a living. We know there is pressure on truckers to keep driving. Trucking made Luis Gonzales a living, but perhaps not such a living that could afford time away from it. Perhaps he kept driving, afraid that any proven heart trouble would officially ground him and leave his five children and wife without support. Did Luis Gonzales plan out his route, plan to take the children, but calculate that the twinge in his chest was not a problem? And that twinge maybe changed everything he had planned when it became a heart attack.

Truck drivers are professionals who keep risk to a minimum, for themselves and drivers around them. You plan, you estimate, you analyze, you assess the job, the road and the risks. But sometimes the numbers lie.

So whatever happened in that cab, the wreck teaches us that we should count, and enjoy, our blessings and be grateful for every day. In the long run, how your life turns out is not entirely up to you. All you can do is your best.