CHICAGO — Chris Olson pulled into the Waterman fire station around 11:40 that Thursday night, more out of curiosity than anything else.
On his way home from his job as operations manager for Ridge Ambulance Service in Montgomery, the paramedic and EMT trainer who also volunteers with the Waterman EMS department in DeKalb County had checked his pager and learned the crew was called out on a one-car rollover.
So he decided to make a quick stop at the station before heading home to Jamie, his bride of 10 months.
“Hey guys, what’s going on?” he said to the somber-looking men when he walked through the door. Then, before he could elicit a response, Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Kaus asked him to step into the back room.
“What did I do now?” he remembers joking.
It wasn’t until the chief closed the door that Olson learned the full extent of the events of the last couple of hours.
About two hours earlier, he had talked to Jamie — a bus driver with the Yorkville School District who was training to be an EMT — on her cell phone. She was on her way home from playing bingo in DeKalb, but the conversation was abruptly cut off at 9:41 p.m. And when he tried to call her back, there was no answer.
About an hour later, while doing paperwork at the office, his ambulance dispatcher got a call from the DeKalb coroner’s office inquiring about Chris Olson’s whereabouts.
A little later, when Olson drove past his home in Waterman on his way to check in with the EMS team, he noticed the truck his wife had been driving was not yet home.
Then there were those grim faces of his colleagues. And now, as his gut clenched, the door closed behind him.
“We had a terrible accident. . .” his boss began. “It’s your wife.”
Chris vaguely remembers uttering an oh-my-God. He clearly remembers the chief’s next words — “She passed away.”
As he quickly learned, the 911 call to Waterman’s EMS crew came five minutes after Chris was disconnected from Jamie. A teenager living in a farmhouse had heard a loud noise, then saw headlights in the field. After negotiating the curve in the rural road, Jamie had fishtailed on the soft gravel.
As the truck rolled over, his 23-year-old wife was ejected.
And now Chris, in addition to planning a funeral for “the rock in my life,” is left with what-ifs whirling through his head. What if Jamie’s brother had gone with her to play bingo, as planned?
What if he had left work an hour earlier and responded to the 911 call? And the big one: What if Jamie had been wearing a seat belt?
It’s a sensitive subject for the 30-year-old paramedic. Despite the fact Chris teaches EMT classes throughout the Fox Valley, he has not worn a seat belt since 1997 — when he was hit by a drunken driver and trapped in a car that caught fire. The only thing that saved his life was a correctional officer who came along with a fire extinguisher.
“I would try to wear a seat belt after the accident,” he said. “But I just couldn’t do it.”
But Chris always re-engaged the belt whenever Jamie drove the truck — except on May 15, that fatal Thursday when the couple hurriedly exchanged vehicles earlier in the day because of his wife’s doctor’s appointment.
Chris can never be certain a seat belt would have saved Jamie’s life — the truck came down on the driver’s side. But he does know one thing for sure: Now, more than ever, he is in a position to send out a powerful message that could save lives.
On the way to DeKalb on Friday to do some last-minute errands for his wife’s funeral, Chris Olson pulled the seat belt around him and kept it on the entire drive.
“It was hard,” he admitted. “But I will keep trying to wear it.”