The Good Samaritans

posted 01/13/04

It was a day in the middle of winter; the new year had just begun, and the weather was cold, windy, and clear. Two of us, Urban Explorers, young men in their mid-20's with an interest in history, caves, tunnels, sewers, and drains, were in a car. We were travelling on the highway at two in the morning on a Saturday, heading home from a gathering of fellow explorers to drop me off at home for some much-needed sleep.
Some context, here, for those not in on the full story: The weekend before, six fellow explorers had been arrested in the same city on a number of trumped-up terrorism charges and eventually released, after being "caught" walking down the sidewalk towards their target, a disused brewery (and, unfortunately, very near an ethanol plant). It was the first formal contact between the area's UE and Law Enforcement communities, and it didn't go well at all, with the explorers being stupid and uncooperative and the police jumping to premature conclusions. Branded by the police as criminals and terrorists, explorers in the area would have been out that night doing the stuff they do, but had instead met to eat, drink, and discuss the arrests. Most of the personal property, including hundreds of dollars of photographic equipment, belonging to the "Landmark Six" still had yet to be returned to them, while their home telephones were tapped. Some worried about the privacy of their emails and forum messages, or even that their vehicles had been bugged, while others feared a city-wide crackdown on UE. That the LE - UE relationship was strained is indeed an understatement.
We were heading back to my place on the freeway. Ahead of us, a guy in an older white sedan strayed into the lane next to him, almost striking a van there. The sedan then swerved away, overcorrected, nailed the van hard in the driver's door, swerved away, lost control, spun out and smacked the concrete barrier on the median. All of this 100' or less in front of us, with no other cars in the way. We came to a stop there, as the battered sedan was blocking two of the three lanes of traffic, including ours. After a few moments the sedan sped off, just as I was dialing 911 on the cell phone. Neither of us were able to see the license plate, and when the driver said "Should I try and follow him to get the plate?", I for some reason "yes".
So we took off after him, almost bottoming out the car going over some ice to make the exit the sedan took. Our car is a four-banger with a bad clutch, and the other car was a full-sized six- or eight-cylinder whose driver was flying. We followed him as far as downtown, about a mile, and were able to provide a fair description of the vehicle, it's last known location and direction of travel, as well as the scene of the original accident to the dispatcher. We lost him, despite running several red lights (there was zero traffic at that hour); we just couldn't safely keep up.
We headed back onto the freeway, and stopped on the shoulder opposite where the van was parked. We grabbed flashlights (We're, you know, urban explorers... we carry that kind of stuff - just in case) and ran across six lanes of traffic (though not much traffic, and we are adults, thank you), as well as vaulting the 4' concrete barrier, to check on the driver of the van, who was shaken but OK. We headed back to our car for gloves, hat and scarf, then crossed the freeway, median and all one more time to wait with the driver for the State Patrol to arrive. While waiting we checked out the damage to the van, convinced the driver to turn his hazard lights on, and dragged a few pieces of both vehicles involved in the collision out of traffic and to the shoulder, including a mirror assembly off the sedan... oh, and noting that the white sedan was leaving a pretty good stream of some liquid (not oil; antifreeze, perhaps) behind it.
The Trooper arrived eventually, talked to the driver, and talked to us briefly. One of his questions was "Where did you guys park?". When we told him, he asked how we planned to get back to it... and we replied "carefully". The officer insisted that it was too cold out to be running across six lanes of traffic (never mind that we'd done it three times already, something we didn't volunteer), said he'd give us a ride back to our car, though it was less than a hundred feet away, and told us to wait in the (heated) cage of his squad car while he filled out the reports and did the things LEO's do. So we sat in the back of the car as he entered the information on his (quite nice touch-screen) laptop, took what information we were able to provide, and so on. About twenty minutes to half an hour. We didn't mind; it was warm and out of the wind. He did a few more things, talked to the driver of the van again, and then took us back to our car. Because of the crazy layout of the exit and entrance ramps, this was a five-minute ride, which took us within sight of the state Capitol building. As we were sitting at the light there, he turns back to us through the grille and tells us a little story...
It seems he'd just been assigned to the Capitol security detail on a part-time basis because of the heightened terror alert. He'd never been in the Capitol before, let alone been assigned there, and the veterans of that detail required that, as an initiation, he climb out onto the roof by some somewhat famous statuary, and then climb up onto another part of the roof, then climb a ladder to the very, very top of the capitol and touch the gold ball atop the dome before he could begin his shift. Oh, and he'd also gotten to walk on a catwalk at the very top of the inside of the dome, and look down. He thought the whole initiation thing, and the "20 inch wide" catwalk up in the dome, was very cool. The two of us in the back could only sit there and stare at him open-mouthed... I mean, what are the odds we'd run into a State Trooper who had a streak of the explorer in him? We made the appropriate and not-faked "oh wow!" noises and the other fellow asked him if those areas were accessable to the public (alas, no). Enthusiasm and envy did not require faking on our part - the trooper had "roofed" the Capitol building!
He drove us back to our car, let us out, and bid us a good night. We headed to our destinations without further incident and slept, eventually, once the adrenaline rush of the accident, chase, and ensuing activity wore off.

Did he know he had two explorers in his cage? Probably not. He did have my name, which had been in the paper a few days before in connection to UE, but it's paranoid to suppose he recognized it. Now, at the risk of spoiling a perfectly good, completely true story with some political whining or something, if it's "OK" for a professional member of state law enforcement to enjoy, ahem, our sort of activities, ahem, shouldn't we be allowed to pursue our hobby in peace?


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