Help! Can Anyone Hear Me?

Trapped in her car down an embankment, Corine began to lose hope of being found

Lisa Fitterman Published Oct 18, 2020 00:00:00 IST
2020-10-18T00:00:00+05:30
2020-10-17T00:12:36+05:30
Help! Can Anyone Hear Me? All illustrations by Steven P. Hughes

Corine Bastide gently locks the door to her boyfriend’s apartment, not wanting to wake him. It is 11 p.m. on 23 July, 2019, still humid after a day that reached 31°C. Restless after an argument earlier with her ex-husband about their three sons, there’s no way she will be able to sleep. So, she has decided to drive home, an easy 36-kilometre trip along the motorway from Liège to her place in the village of Wanze in Belgium.

As she gets into her car, she tucks a strand of long auburn hair behind an ear and absently smooths her colourfully green-patterned dress. Rivulets of sweat run down her neck.

There is little traffic. Corine grips the steering wheel as she concentrates on both the road and thoughts of her boys, who live with her half the time: Hadrien, 18, a track-and-field fan who is determined to help victims of crime as his life’s work; Audric, 16, a champion high-jumper; and Dorian, 12, her ‘Dodo’ and a budding athlete in his own right.

Without them, I’d be nothing.

Lost in her thoughts, she only notices the car vibrating after she has been driving for about 20 minutes.

I told you to have the brakes serviced, she imagines David Bartholomé, her boyfriend of five months, telling her. There is so much going on in her life—a divorce and caring for the boys while working in a local cafeteria—that getting the car checked wasn’t a priority. Until now.

Get off the motorway. The slower the car is going, the easier it will be to stop. The sign for the exit to the town of Saint-Georges-Sir-Meuse is right up ahead. She guides the car into the exit lane and starts to pump the brakes. Gently at first, then hard, harder. Nothing’s working!

Her little grey Fiat Bravo hatchback keeps picking up speed, careening as she tries to steer. She hits something. The car is in the air, then sliding down a slope that feels steep as a cliff, studded with jagged rocks, thick tree trunks and overhanging branches. It takes seconds, minutes, forever. Then a terrible crunching noise, metal folding in on metal and the sound of smashing glass.

Corine lies on her back, disoriented. She doesn’t realize the car has flipped over. Somehow, she has managed to undo her seat belt. There is the sound of breathing, shallow, fast and loud. Is that me? It must be nearing midnight. She should have been home by now. Somewhere in the car, her mobile phone rings. Thoughts are jumbled together: Am I alive? Please help me! Did anyone see me go over?

And yet, there is one thought that is the clear and constant chorus to the clamour of the others.

My boys are my lifeline.

Then she passes out.

***

Day One

The sound of the mobile phone jars Corine awake. Unthinking, she reaches out for it, casting blindly. All of a sudden, reality hits. She is lying on the inside of her car’s roof, the driver’s seat suspended above her. A branch sticks through the gap that was the front windshield. Silently, she recites, as if to pin herself in time, her name, the date, her sons’ names. There was an accident. I am alive.

Shards of exploded glass glitter throughout; the contents of her handbag are strewn everywhere.

“Hunh!” She grunts, trying to shift. But she can’t because her left leg and her back are embedded on the bits of glass. Oh, the pain! Although she doesn’t realize it then, her back is broken in several places, and her entire left side is paralyzed.

Someone has to see me. The traffic is so close. She can hear it. “Help me!” she cries, loud as she can. “I’m down here!

She calls out until her voice can call no more. No one hears her. Although she has not fallen far—maybe two metres at most—the traffic is too loud and the car is too well-hidden by the woods. In the meantime, her mobile phone rings again and again; she loses count. For sure, David is trying to reach her. And maybe Hadrien, with whom she speaks or exchanges messages nearly every day.

After about two hours, the phone stops for good, its battery dead.

She lies here, waiting for someone to find her. By now it is past noon and even hotter than the day before.

David must think I’m angry with him. And he must have phoned Hadrien. What do they think has happened to me?

She drifts off in the early evening. As she sleeps, David, who has tried Corine’s mobile repeatedly, calls Hadrien.

“Have you heard from your mum?”

“No,” comes the reply. “Is something wrong?”

***

Day Two

It dawns even hotter, the hottest day of the week so far. Corine stirs, her limbs numb but feeling new resolve. Today, she is going to help herself. She is a runner. She knows what it is to hit the wall and move through it. The car is her wall, and the brambles and the embankment. She has to get out of the car, struggle up the embankment and wave down a passer-by.

“Please call the father of my children, she imagines telling her rescuer. “They need to know I’m okay.

That’s how she thinks of Stéphane. The father of my children. The man she was with for 23 years after moving to Belgium from Mauritius more than a quarter century ago.

Funny, but she doesn’t feel hungry or thirsty. She looks around for a way out of the car. With the bent and twisted chassis, it’s not obvious but—there! Yes. She will use the seat belt looped above her like a rope to pull herself through the jagged gap in the front. Gritting her teeth amid blinding pain, she shifts her body; with every movement the shards of glass in her back and legs cut deeper. It takes about 15 minutes to advance just a centimetre or two.

Hadrien, Auric and Dorian. They are her mantra.

“Come on, you can do it,” she says out loud, imagining that Hadrien is speaking to her.

The sun is high in the sky when she finally pokes her head outside. Gazing up, she sees snippets of blue sky through the canopy of broken branches. Turning her head and glancing down, she cries out in frustration: The car is perched on a small ledge and there is a drop of half a metre to reach the ground, which is covered in gnarled roots and sharp rocks.

Launching myself out head first could end with me breaking my neck.

Disheartened, she lies there, gathering what strength she has to shift back into the car. By the time she is settled, the sky is starting to change colour.

Sleep, she tells herself, exhausted. There’s always tomorrow.

In the meantime, Hadrien and David are calling everyone they know. But no one has heard anything from Corine.

“There isn’t even anything on Facebook,” Hadrien says. “If a morning goes by without a post from her, something is very wrong. It’s time to call the police.”

By the end of the second day, they have learnt that the last location for Corine’s mobile phone signal was in the region of Saint-Georges-sur-Meuse. But there are so many farms and little communities there, and the small population is spread out over 20 square kilometres, much of it covered in forest. By now, she could be anywhere. She could be kidnapped. Or dead.

accident-2_101720120740.jpg

***

Day Three

The weather is the same, hot and sticky, with not a cloud in the sky. This morning, Corine, desperate and determined, shifts her body to brace her shoulders and arms against one door in an attempt to kick open the other one. Again and again, grunting with effort. But she is weak and the doors are so damaged, they do not budge.

What next? Corine looks around. Her gaze lands on the back door, which the crash left partially open. What if she tries to squeeze through feet first? But does she have the strength?

Tomorrow, she thinks.

***

Day Four

Corine wakens to wetness. It’s raining on and off, the water coming in through the broken windshield to soak her dress, which is already damp from her urine. Time is reduced to light and dark, day and night, the difference between living and dying. All she can do is lie here, listening to the traffic, the rain and the whistle of the wind.

On Facebook, Hadrien begs for anyone who has information to please call either him or the police, and the family puts together a poster to be put up everywhere over the next few days.

“We will find you,” he vows. “We need you.”

***

Day Five

A torrential downpour turns the car into a makeshift bathtub so that Corine is half-submerged, her long hair floating around her. If only she could sink under and have it all go away.

Hadrien, Audric and Dorian.

“You are going to see your boys again,” she says aloud. “Live.”

She tries to collect water from the downpour, first in an empty chewing gum container but the cardboard simply absorbs it. She looks again at the branch sticking into the car, its leaves now dripping.

Carefully, she lifts her head, her mouth open, and guides the branch down to it with her right hand. She sucks like a baby, coaxing enough water from the branch to moisten her mouth.

Her dress has ridden up in the water and her thighs are exposed and burning from their myriad cuts. She is shivering uncontrollably, partly because the temperature has dropped and her wet dress is freezing.

With nothing to eat for five days and only the rainwater to slake her thirst, she is becoming hypothermic; as her body starves it starts to consume its own fat cells to keep her going.

Without thinking, she tears her dress in a frenzy, crying out as the material takes pieces of her skin with it. Then she lies still, realizing she has to get a grip—fast. “You can’t sleep because if you do, you will die from the cold,” she says aloud to herself. “Please, find me soon. I don’t know how much longer I have.”

***

Day Six

It is sunny again, with a light breeze. Perfect for a run or attending the boys’ many athletic competitions. But not for this. At the end of her rope, Corine, an observant Catholic all her life, has a conversation with God.

“Lord, if you can see anything I haven’t tried, help me find a solution,” she says. “Because I can’t do any more on my own.”

In the meantime, parents of a friend of Hadrien, Laurence Lardinois and her husband, Olivier Lechantre, are out that afternoon doing errands. Corine is on their minds. Earlier that day Olivier had helped his son put up ‘missing’ posters in the neighbourhood.

They are driving slowly on the exit to Saint-Georges-sur-Meuse when Laurence, in the passenger seat, spots what looks like an overturned car to the right, at the bottom of the embankment, so covered in vegetation and mud, it looks as though it was abandoned a long time ago.

“But it could be Corine,” she says. “Let’s go check it out.”

They park and carefully descend, Olivier leading the way because there are so many stones, branches and roots to trip over. Suddenly, they hear a faint voice.

“Help me,” Corine calls. “I’m down here!”

“Are you Corine?”

“Yes! How do you know my name?”

“A lot of people have been looking for you! It’s a miracle,” comes the answer. “It’s a miracle!”

Laurence phones the police, and about 10 minutes later, an ambulance arrives and a helicopter lands in the adjoining field to take Corine to hospital in Liege. Workers have to cut through branches and then pry open the car door to get her safely out.

At the hospital, doctors diagnose multiple fractures in her spine, a severe weakness in her left side, a collapsed lung and hypothermia. When she comes out of surgery, David and her sons are there.

family_101720120950.jpgCorine with Audric (left), Dorian and Hadrien, Christmas 2019 (Photo courtesy of Corine Bastide)

“You scared us,” David tells her.

Her neck and spine supported by a brace, her body torn and battered, she cries. “You thought I’d abandoned you?” she says.

Then she turns her head to the boys, who are standing there, awkward. They want to hug her hard and never let her go—but they can’t.

“It was thoughts of you that got me through,” she tells them.

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