Under the car, hanging on for dear life
Ten-year-old Danny White, red-haired and freckled, was riding his skateboard while his mother walked a friend’s dog.
Ron Dobson was on the corner after a day of revisions on a screenplay, enjoying the feel of the afternoon sun on his face, eyes closed and head tilted back.
Myra Crowe was on her way to a ballet class for one of her three kids, all of whom were in her Honda Pilot as she headed out of her town house driveway and onto Palisades Circle at the very moment Danny approached.
Crowe never saw him.
Danny, who wore a Boy Scout shirt and a sturdy helmet, had been sitting on his skateboard, his presence concealed by a hedge that runs up to the driveway. He was dragging sneakers to slow down at the driveway, but scooted a bit farther than he intended, and the Honda Pilot was on him before he could avoid it.
Danny was under the car in a flash. His skateboard, knocked out from under him, rolled down the hill toward Palisades Drive.
It was Thursday afternoon, Sept. 20, a beautiful day clouded by this sudden intersection of random events involving people who had never met each other.
“Danny!” called the youngster’s mother, Carole.
She hadn’t seen the contact and was filled with dread at his disappearance and the sense that something horrible was happening. The car proceeded down the hill, and now Carole White could hear a child’s screams.
That can’t be Danny, she tried telling herself. The child sounds too young. But where was her son?
Down at the corner, Dobson, who was waiting for a friend who would take him to a John McLaughlin concert in Santa Barbara, heard bloodcurdling screams and looked up the hill at an amazing sight.
“Danny was on his back, his body totally under the car, holding on to the front bumper for dear life,” says Dobson.
Crowe heard faint screams while driving the car. A chill came over her, but she still had no idea a 10-year-old was clinging to life under the floorboards.
The car wasn’t going very fast as it approached the intersection, but Dobson wondered how long Danny could hold on. It was like a scene out of a movie -- this young child pulling off what looked like an impossible stunt, using all his strength to hold his head up off the pavement. If he let go, Dobson thought, he could be crushed by the low undercarriage, or be thrown under the wheels.
Dobson broke out running up the street, headed straight toward the moving car with his hands up.
“Stop!” he yelled, and Crowe had no choice but to hit the brakes.
When the car came to a halt, Danny crawled out, darted clear of the car and ran a short distance. Dobson went after him, fearing he was badly injured and didn’t even know it. He had been dragged roughly 80 feet.
Carole White came running down the street, heart racing. Danny, a fifth-grader at Marquez Charter Elementary, looked bewildered but OK.
Crowe was climbing out of her car, shaken, but still not sure what had happened.
“Lady, you were dragging a kid under your car,” Dobson told her, and Crowe slumped to the ground in shock.
The back of Danny’s helmet was badly scraped and a nasty road rash spread across his shoulders and upper back. Carole White called her husband, who happens to work as an emergency trauma technician at UCLA Medical Center’s emergency room, and told him she was going to drive Danny there.
Don’t think of it, David Niles White told his wife. Danny could be badly injured despite appearances. Call 911, he said, and have them bring him to UCLA Medical Center.
Rescue 23, a Pacific Palisades unit of the Los Angeles Fire Department, arrived at the scene of the accident in minutes and put Danny into a neck and back immobilizer. For David White, who was miles away, the wait was excruciating.
“I sat in the radio room, waiting for the call,” he said. When it came, with paramedics reporting they had a child who’d been “hit by a car and dragged,” he couldn’t believe they were talking about his own son.
White regularly works as an animation producer, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, he was inspired to do something in medicine. If there were a catastrophe in Los Angeles, he says, he wanted to be able to help family and fellow citizens in a hands-on way, so he took an EMT course and works two days a week assisting the emergency room staff with patients who arrive by ambulance or helicopter.
To his relief, Danny looked OK when he finally arrived. But White has seen lots of patients take sudden turns for the worse after a traumatic injury. And so has Dr. Tom Graham, who was worried about a hidden internal injury.
But after two or three hours of tests and observation, Graham cleared Danny to go home, amazed that he’d had the strength and presence of mind to hang on to the bumper and avoid serious injury. Danny had a possible chip fracture under one knee and would end up in a walking cast, but that, and the scrapes, would be his only wounds.
“You’ve got eight lives left,” Graham told him. “Be careful what you do with them.”
Myra Crowe, Ron Dobson, Danny and his parents still think about the meaning of it all, about unpredictability, the invisible line between luck and doom, and the way the moments of a day play out. What if Dobson hadn’t been in the precise spot where he was? What if Danny had lost his grip?
“I’d be on Prozac the rest of my life, or whatever the new drug is,” Crowe said, still shaken several days later. Danny’s little fingerprints were on her bumper until rain washed them away.
I told Crowe that Danny had already shared the story with fellow Scouts and told them about the importance of wearing a helmet. Good advice, Crowe said, and obviously, adult drivers need to be ever-vigilant. But for their own safety, she said, kids need to do more in the presence of moving vehicles than just wear helmets.
Danny, whose parents call him extremely athletic for such a skinny little guy, remembers suddenly seeing the grille of the Honda coming at him and reaching for the bumper.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen? Am I going to die?’. . . My brain had no idea what I was doing, but my body said, ‘Hold on.’ ”
One hand was slipping, though, and he feared he might lose his grip. And then Dobson flew in like a guardian angel.
Maybe, Dobson later thought, it can all be worked into a screenplay.
Danny said he was in a lot of pain after crawling out from under the car, but didn’t speak up because he didn’t want to upset Crowe or his mother any more than they already were.
“At our Yom Kippur services, we were surrounded by such love and support,” says David White, who was thankful to everyone involved, including Rescue 23 and his colleagues at the hospital, and of course Dobson. “After services, our rabbi took us into the sanctuary, gathered us close, and said a prayer written for people who’ve narrowly escaped death or illness.”
Danny, who wants to be a professional hockey player when he grows up, missed only one day of school. The youngster is anything but shy, and looks forward to many years of telling the story about the time he was dragged under a car but survived with inhuman strength.
First, though, he’ll be Patrick Henry in the school play, and his big line is, “Give me liberty or give me death.”