Thick white mist, pairs of diminutive red and yellow lamps. A hitchhiker waving arms, running beside the road. Flames, crashed cars, debris-strewn highway, silence.
11-March-2008, the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.
What began as a normal morning soon turned into the most incredible commuter's nightmare. Alas for me, I would be among the lucky who only witnessed the tragedy rather than having joined it. The sufferers must include also those who saw the worst of it--the flaming cars and crashed cars into the hundreds.
It had started as quite a normal morning as dawn had broken and traffic had already begun to make its hasty way out of Abu Dhabi, toward Dubai. It was normal for this time of year in that the early morning streets, and the highways especially, were obscured by dense white clouds of fog. It was, in fact, the third day running for the dense morning fog, so drivers I'm sure had an added level of confidence in their ability to maneuver.
But normality began to wane when the thickness of the fog brought visibility down to near zero. Perhaps one could see faintly the tail lights of a car up ahead, to a distance of no more than 10 meters. Some drivers heeded the poor conditions, while others dared to beat whatever clock they were racing. "Just go with the flow... keep some distance between the next car ahead... but where is the next car ahead?"
These were some of the thoughts going through my mind, when suddenly I noticed the foolish/desperate hitchhiker waving his arms, running beside the road. "Wait a minute; he's not a hitchhiker. Something's afoot..." I quickly slowed down, then noticed that the traffic ahead had come to a standstill. Thanks to those frantically waving arms, I had plenty of time to stop.
I soon forgot the heroic efforts of the man or men--in fact there were two or more--waving arms to warn drivers of the dangers ahead. They weren't policemen. In my mind's eye I recall one wearing the familiar white tunic of a Pakistani laborer or driver. I can't recall what the other or others looked like. But I soon forgot their deeds when the traffic eventually inched its way to a scene of several crashed cars, one or two still in the road and a few others along the side. But there would be more, much more.
Moving slowly, stalling, then moving forward again, the four lanes of traffic finally made its way past car upon car, wrecked vehicles lining both sides of the road. I began to count as I rode by... 1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 20... then I lost count as it would appear there were 50 or 60 strewn along the highway. Just past the melee, once again traffic came to a dead halt. After an hour the stream made its way another kilometer forward, this time passing another dozen or so crashed cars.
I had never seen anything like it before. The highway was littered with fragments of glass, plastic, rubber and metal. Emergency vehicles--patrol cars, ambulances and tow trucks--rode by with sirens blaring intermittently. The fog was steadily lifting and people began to emerge from cars as traffic came to a standstill. There was not the usual giddiness one finds among spectators at the scene of a traffic accident. Most did not know exactly what lay ahead but there was among this impromptu assemblage of an audience a sense of awe at what they might expect to see. There was, too, a sense of relief that it was "not me" in the wreckage that was sure to lie ahead.
Radio reports were coming in of a huge pileup with cars aflame at Ghantoot, some 50 kilometers ahead of where we were. Surely, this was not the tailback. Even before catching a glimpse of the man waving arms, I had decided to pull off road and wait at the nearest petrol station for the fog to clear. But I would never make it to that station in Taweelah. The 80-car series of crashes occurred in between Taweelah and the preceding interchange at Al Rahba. At the Taweelah interchange traffic was forced to divert toward any heading except Dubai. I returned to Abu Dhabi, having witnessed a part, and apparently the lesser part, of the UAE's worst ever traffic melee.
I later discovered that Ghantoot was, in fact, the scene of the greater tragedy with up to 200 cars crashed and 30 or more having gone up in flames. Was the weather to blame? Six weeks earlier the country was swamped with a week of rains that led to numerous traffic accidents. At that time I felt nearly traumatized as I daily passed cars lying wrecked along the side of the road--at most I would count six in one journey along the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway.
This time, however, it was different. The extent and scale of the disaster was unprecedented. The 125 kilometer stretch of highway was this time the scene of numerous multi-vehicle pileups. I truly believe that one contributing factor was that many drivers had gotten used to the foggy conditions, and felt no need to exercise extra caution--even as the fog became thicker than ever.
In the end, the numbers traumatized must go into the hundreds, not including the hundreds who would have sustained injuries and the dozen or so who would have tragically died. But one thing that I hope I will not forget are the heroic efforts of those running arm-wavers who are likely to have prevented many more from becoming crash victims on 11 March 2008.