Wilton Watson couldn’t feel his smokeless chewing tobacco. After flying 35 ft into a highway ditch the lone missing sensation was a blessing. It could have been worse--a lot worse.
On Nov. 13, 2002, Watson, then a superintendent for D.I.J. Construction Inc., and his crew of six were in the beginning stages of a pavement marking job on U.S. Highway 287 just south of Bowie, Texas. Two attenuator trucks sheltered a work trailer on the right shoulder. Watson was inside the first vehicle filling out paper work, while one of his workers, Brock Phillips, worked on pulling out one of the machines used to dispense bituminous for the pavement markers from the trailer.
Watson did not hear any screeching tires or crushing steel. He did pick up the sound of someone’s voice, but by that time he was in the grass, wondering what happened to his tobacco, and barely breathing.
“(Robert Arellano) told me, ‘You’re hurt. Just stay down,’” Watson told Roads & Bridges. “I saw my truck and trailer and was wondering what happened. I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know how badly. My last memory was I was in my truck filling out paperwork. I still don’t know where I was at the time of the accident, but I got hit in the process.”
A truck driver high on methamphetamine delivered glancing blows to the two attenuator trucks then plowed into the work trailer. Phillips was killed instantly. Another worker on the trailer setting up the arrow board suffered severe burns after he was knocked off and covered with hot bituminous mix. Three others suffered minor injuries.
The 35-ft plunge had Watson drifting in and out of consciousness. He had four broken ribs, a punctured lung, a dislocated left shoulder and wrist, a broken left humerus bone, three broken fingers on his left hand (one was cracked twice and “skinned”), a laceration and head injury, bruises on the left hip and back and cuts on his forehead and cheek.
But he was still alive, and still breathing.
“They never had to do mouth-to-mouth on me. I was just lucky to be alive.”
Watson was transported to Wichita Falls for a weeklong stay before he was moved to St. David’s in Austin. After surgeries on the left hand and elbow, followed by rehab, the 52-year-old returned to work March 1, 2003. Today he almost has full range in his shoulder, but the elbow is still misaligned and he can’t make a fist with his left hand. However, he can still work as a field operations supervisor at D.I.J. Construction.
“I’m not going back out there,” he proclaimed. “If I had to go out again I would have to retire real quick. Luckily, the position (of field operations supervisor) opened up.”
But Watson, who also is the company’s safety officer, is still often reminded of the horror of what can go wrong in a work zone.
“I worry more . . . a lot more,” he admitted. “The first thing I say when a crew leaves the office is, ‘You be careful.’”
The truck driver has a lot more time to think. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter and is currently serving 10 years for the death of Phillips.
“I’m one that kind of forgives and forgets, but for a cause of death I don’t think it was justice served.”
But instead of dwelling on rage, Watson has fired up a safety crusade. Before the accident very few workers at D.I.J. Construction had CPR training. Now, knowing the procedure is a requirement. Watson teaches flagging to current and new employees and uses his life-altering experience to grab and hold attention.
“Early on I would train with my hand and wrist in a sling,” he said. “I tell them. The first thing I say is it is a dangerous job. Their eyes just light up in surprise. They ask me how I’m still walking, how I’m still working.”
As far as relaying the same message over to the motorist, Watson isn’t quite sure of the right approach.
“That vest is just like putting a target on you. When I was out there on the job I worried about everybody on my crew. You don’t want them stepping out when they shouldn’t, because you never know in a split second what is going to happen.
“People just don’t know what can happen until they’ve been put in this situation. I really don’t know what I can say to (motorists). I wish there was a way to get each state to put the word out on safety,” he said.