Pastor Robert J. Martinez Sr.
R is for Road of Death.
Pastor Martinez and I attended high school together at Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado. He recently wrote an article about a personal experience that I found very interesting. I asked him if I could use it on my blog and he graciously agreed.
The Road Of Death
by Pastor Robert J. Martinez Sr.
This is a true story. It happened to me on Oct. 13, 1987. My family and I were missionaries in La Paz, Bolivia, where I served as youth director for the Adventist Church. I was traveling via bus on the most dangerous road in the world: “El Camino de la Muerte,” the "Road of Death."
My wife had just delivered our daughter three days earlier and I had to travel to a ministers' meeting five hours from the capital city. This meant taking a bus on the most deadly road in the world, “El Camino de La Muerte” or the “Road of Death.” I said goodbye to my young family, but I had a bad feeling about this trip. I could feel it in my gut and I was right.
The "Road of Death" was carved out of the ancient roads of the Incan Empire. It was also dynamited out of the cliffs that demanded some outlet. It is an incredibly busy thoroughfare of trade, large trucks bringing agricultural products to La Paz and more trucks carrying supplies in the opposite direction. The road is narrow and in some places only one vehicle is able to pass, so one of the vehicles has to move dangerously close to the cliff in order to let the other pass.
I boarded the bus. It was an old school bus, painted blue and red. Inside were 50 Bolivians, packed in like sardines. It was a long ride to my destination, so I fell asleep. During my nap, we passed a monument where Communists where thrown to their deaths 40 years before. It was a drop of thousands of feet, I’m not sure exactly how far, but on prior trips on this road I was amazed to see a winding river far, far below.
It had been raining that morning and the unpaved road was muddy and there had been some small landslides. The bus driver should have gotten out and cleared the landslide with a shovel. It would have taken only 20 minutes or so, but he chose instead to drive the bus over the loosely packed dirt. It was a mistake he would never forget.
The screams woke me just in time to pray what I thought would be my final prayer — “Save us, Lord!” was all I could think of saying. At first the bus tumbled over and fell 20 or so feet and hit hard on the roof of the bus. This short but violent fall fortunately opened the top of the bus and people began to be thrown out of the bus. I hit the roof hard with my head and fell unconscious and then drifted in and out of consciousness as the bus began its 2,000-foot trip down to our certain demise.
We were fortunate. Most vehicles that fell off the “Road of Death” were unlucky enough to fall down sheer cliffs; we, on the other hand, rolled violently down a very steep mountainside. It is estimated that for every mile on this twisting road, that 20 people have lost their lives. All we could expect was to be another statistic and we were all sure that we had experienced our final journey.
It was strangely silent as the bus rolled, and then hit the ground hard, then continued its rolling. It seemed like time stood still and gave us precious moments to contemplate our mortality, our vulnerability, our ephemeral nature. My thoughts turned to my newborn daughter, Natalie. She was all of three days old. My wife, Velia, and I had wanted her so badly and now she had arrived. Now that I was sure of my death, as time seemed to stand still, I thought how I would never see her crawl, never see her take her first steps, never hear her say “Daddy,” never see her off to her first day at school, never see her graduate from high school or from college, and never get to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day.
The top of the bus opened like a can of sardines and twisted open and then shut as we continued rolling down the mountainside. Each time the bus rolled, people were flung out either to their death or to their salvation. At about 1,000 feet down the mountainside, the bus flung me out with tremendous force, sending me flying ahead of the bus. I fell on some bushes with a broken scapula, back injuries and a concussion. The lady beside me was cursing at the Virgin Mary; with my peripheral vision she seemed to be folded together like a tortilla.
As I lay helpless there on the bushes I saw an amazing sight: a red and blue bus flying through the air 30 or so feet above me. As I contemplated the strange sight, I wondered about the fate of the people inside.
A co-worker of mine, Eduardo Patsy, was still in the bus as I watched its trajectory from the cold ground. As the bus continued its death tumble, Ed felt leaves and branches moving across his face … so he grabbed for whatever he could find and he was pulled out of the tumbling bus by a stationary tree limb. Ed hung on to the tree and found that he was 20 feet in the air. “I’m safe,” he thought. “No injuries.” Just then a heavy tree branch landed on his right leg as he dangled there. His leg was broken.
I had been shot out of the top of the vehicle and had landed on the brush below. I looked at my right arm, then my left arm, then I inspected my legs — yes, they were still connected. I was still in one piece. “How did I get out of a flying bus in such good condition?” I thought to myself. I wondered how I could have fit through the window and had still survived without becoming an amputee. I found out later that the roof of the bus had come off and that most of the passengers had been thrown out with violent force all way down the mountainside. One father searched for his son, saying with a sad voice, “My son’s head has been smashed when the bus rolled over him.”
As my thoughts turned again to my newborn daughter, I was overjoyed to realize that I was still alive. I would see my family again! I began to sing praises to God for His deliverance. “You are my hiding place. You always fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in you. I will trust in you. Let the weak say I am strong in the strength of my Lord.” As survivors heard my song, I heard them say, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he singing?” Someone responded, “Oh, he hit his head when the bus tipped over.” They couldn't understand the joy in my heart of just being alive and able to see my newborn girl again.
Two friends of mine, both pastors, began rescuing as many people as possible. A lady began to cry out for her baby, who had been sitting on her lap when the bus fell off the cliff. “Where is my baby? Where is my baby?” she yelled. The minister looked about and spotted the baby, buck naked sitting on the freshly cut branches. He picked her up with his right hand and as he did he heard the bones of his own arm breaking. He put the baby down and picked her up again, this time with his left hand. He handed the baby back to her mother. “Thank you,” she said. “Now where is my husband?” He looked around and found her husband a few yards behind the woman. He was dead.
As I assessed the carnage all around me, I felt that it must have been like the aftermath of a firefight in the jungles of Vietnam. Fifty people were scattered down the mountainside, some dead, others seriously injured and still others walking about dazed and confused.
The accident drew looters to our valuables and they rushed to ransack our luggage. They scurried around their plunder, searching for loot instead of assisting the injured. One young pastor had been carrying the tithes from his church district; several thousand dollars were on his person. He was seriously injured. While the bus rolled downward, two heavy seats came unbolted and smashed together. He was between those seats and his lungs burst with the impact. When he arrived at a small local hospital, he was dead and the money was gone.
The hours passed slowly as the passengers were forced to rescue themselves. A light rain fell. As I lay on my back, friends encouraged me to get to my feet to begin the long climb to the treacherous road a thousand feet above us. I refused. I knew my back was injured (it turned out that I sustained a broken left scapula and compression fractures in T6 and T7 in my back) and I feared that I might sever the spinal cord if I moved. “I’ll just wait for the helicopters to arrive and rescue us.” I said. There was a chorus of laughter from the people around me. “The only rescuers you’ll ever see are those vultures circling above us,” one person said. “We’re not in the United States. Get up and start the climb up the mountain.” I still refused and moved my toes to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed. Finally I accepted reality and agreed with them that we should not expect to be rescued and that I should accept the limited help I’d receive from my friends. I tried to get up but crumpled to the ground in pain. “Can you find a blanket and help me up to the road?” I asked. Someone found a blanket and four people, themselves injured, dragged me upward a thousand feet. I felt guilty to ask these traumatized people to carry me on that makeshift gurney.
When we reached the road it was another four hours to a hospital in La Paz. I was loaded onto the truck bed of a small Toyota, where two other injured people were waiting to be driven to the hospital. One lady lay quietly in pain and an old man lay next to me. I tried to take in the scene when a rooster popped up between me and the old man and I just had to laugh to myself at the absurdity of the whole strange “rescue.”
I watched the old man as the life slowly left him. The trip seemed interminable. As we entered the outskirts of La Paz, people began to greet us, for they had heard of the accident. I yelled to a shop owner: “Sir, call my wife and tell her that I am not injured seriously. Tell her to meet me at Hospital La Paz.” My wife had heard of the accident and had been waiting by the phone for news of my condition. She knew that the accident was serious but somehow knew that I was alive.
She arrived at the hospital shortly after I did. Minutes before this the old man beside me died. Nine passengers died on that fateful day. I felt that I had been spared for a reason. Life took on new meaning to me; life was precious to me now. My children and wife needed me. My work was not yet finished. My last sermon had not yet been preached.
“You are my hiding place;
You shall preserve me from trouble;
You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.”
Psalm 32:7, New King James Version
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