The Big Spill: America's Obsession With Ogling Trucking Accidents

The stories behind three of the most notorious long-haul mishaps in history.
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The stories behind three of the most notorious long-haul mishaps in history.

We are a nation of laptop rubberneckers. Videos and listicles—invariably titled something like "Top 10 Worst Truck Accidents Compilation!"—proliferate like pornography along the Internet’s highways and byways. But there is a story behind each toppled 18-wheeler and every mangled Mack truck—stories that are often tragic, occasionally funny, but always very human.

(Photo: Department of Transportation/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Department of Transportation/Creative Commons)

CABBAGE HILL, OREGON

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has the notorious Turn One. The Tour de France features the brutal ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez. And many American truck drivers must endure the terrorizing twists and turns of Oregon’s Emigrant Hill, one of the nation’s deadliest stretches of road.

The first section of the route, following westbound Interstate 84, is named Deadman Pass. The road’s sinisterness only ramps up from there, dipping 2,000 feet in elevation over just six miles of pavement, with a killer double hairpin turn at a six percent downgrade. Truckers fondly call the route Cabbage Hill, in memory of a produce truck that hurtled into the valley below. Today, the Hill is popular with YouTube savvy haulers who record their descent via dashboard camera. Watch their videos closely and you might spy the cabbages that proliferate along the Hill’s steep sides.

MCINTOSH COUNTY, GEORGIA

A pair of long-haul truckers collide in the southern twilight, spilling their loads along Highway 17 in McIntosh County, Georgia. It happens again. And again. After each accident, Sheriff Tom Poppell (think Boss Hogg mixed with segregationist Governor George Wallace) encourages his county’s impoverished, mostly African-American residents to loot the spillage: fresh produce and meats, shoes and guns, building materials, and, once, even fur coats.

All the sheriff asks in return is that they pledge him eternal fidelity.

This strange but true tale is at the center of Melissa Fay Greene’s award-winning Praying for Sheetrock, a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of reportage that uncovers a micro-history of race and power dynamics in the modern South. Sheetrock traces the rise and fall of Thurnell Alston, a man who, tired of waiting and praying for the next collision, resolves to wreck the system.

COACHELLA, CALIFORNIA

(Photo: Creative Commons)

(Photo: Creative Commons)

The Fury Road of big rig collisions occurred in February 2015 on Interstate 10 outside Coachella, California, when a truck hauling 25,000 pounds of frozen chicken clipped a second semi freighting thousands of bees. The ensuing conflagration blackened most of the poultry parts and released an angry swarm of stingers into the California desert. Police cautioned motorists to keep their windows rolled tight as they sat stalled for hours along the road.

When talking to a local news crew about the event, one stranded woman asked and answered the question buzzing in everyone’s ears.

“I mean, hey, what else can you say but ... honey chicken?

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The Keep on Truckin' project is an effort to shine a light on the past, present, and future of the truck-driving industry in America, exploring all facets of our most pivotal, and overlooked, economic engine.

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