This piece was lightly edited and reprinted with the permission of Franklin Crawford, who runs the site TinyTownTimes.com.
Ithaca, N.Y. — Allen Forest was halfway through his haircut at the Big Time Barber Shop when a loud blast rocked the building.
Someone wondered aloud if a crane had collapsed on the construction site outside on the Ithaca Commons.
With uncanny precision, Forest’s brother Kyle Henderson guessed exactly what had just occurred: A runaway truck had slammed into a building down the street.
Forest, Henderson, shop owner Joe Knight and Forest’s wife, Crystal, among others, left the building and confronted an appalling scene: Dozens of people, pedestrians as well as construction workers, were fleeing the site of an incomprehensible disaster: A semi hauling a two-tiered trailer of vehicles was embedded in Simeon’s Restaurant, the rig itself completely buried inside the building.
Forest’s son, Anthony, 10, was terrified as he watched his father and uncle move deliberately toward the horror.
The boy cried out “why is daddy going that way? Why?,” according to Crystal Forest, who told her son to remain in the shelter of the barber shop, and then returned to follow her husband.
A woman, badly injured and bleeding from head wounds, came toward them.
“One of her shoes was missing and she wanted to find it; she was speaking a hundred words a second,” Crystal Forest said. “We tried to get her to sit and wait for help, but she was in such bad shock she only said, ‘I’ve got to get a phone, I’m going to the library, I need a phone.’”
Several people, including Crystal Forest attempted to convince the injured woman to stay with them.
“But she wouldn’t. We couldn’t get her to stay, she just kept going,” Crystal Forest said.
Chaos ensued on the east end of the Ithaca Commons Friday afternoon at a little past 4 p.m., the Forests told me today during an interview at my home.
“Lots of people were on their cells calling 911, but it was a few minutes before we heard sirens and police and fire fighters arrived. A reporter from The Ithaca Journal was there taking pictures and asking questions right as we got outside,” Forest said.
There was no time for answering questions. The situation was intensified by construction barriers that line the center of the Commons, hemming people into a narrow area. Workers also fled the scene, the couple said.
Several men rushed toward the building. Kyle Henderson jumped the barriers, somehow navigating past the wreckage. His brother and Joe Knight followed.
Forest said a man exited the bar carrying an injured woman. Bricks fell from the upper stories of the building; the air was filled with smoke and dust and powdered glass.
There was scant visibility inside the space, which was filled with “smoke and fumes and we could barely see,” Forest said.
He called out for his brother and for survivors. Gradually, the shape of the semi came into focus: the truck had passed through the entire restaurant at an angle “kitty-cornered to the street,” he said.
Forest heard his brother also calling for survivors but could not see him; Kyle Henderson had somehow gotten onto the other side of the vehicle and was furiously smothering a fire with pieces of cloth.
Debris continued to fall. The smell of gasoline was overpowering, Forest said.
“It was so strong it made me dizzy; I pulled my shirt up over my face,” he said.
The men’s voices pierced the gloom as they desperately called for anyone who might be conscious or alive.
“We assumed the driver was dead,” Forest said. “But there wasn’t anybody in the cab; he wasn’t on the scene.”
Crystal Forest said the cries of pedestrians outside made it almost impossible to hear anyone in the building.
She also smelled the gasoline and feared for her husband’s life.
“I’ve been through a few bad things in my life,” she says. “Like hurricanes in Florida, but this was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen – it really seemed like something from 9/11.”
She recalled a young woman in a state of terror who said she was supposed to meet her mother on the corner and could not find her.
“People were in a complete panic,” she says.
Not Forest — nor Henderson, nor Knight.
Forest, a retired oil field worker, is trained in CPR and first aid and understands hazardous duty.
“The first thing you don’t do is panic,” he said.
Henderson, a motor equipment operator for the county highway department, focused on dousing fire and caring for injured people. But after several minutes, Forest said, the danger of an explosion was too great and, not hearing anyone other than his brother and Knight, implored everyone to get out.
“My brother thought he heard someone, but I didn’t hear any voices calling back. The way that truck was positioned, I figured God had already taken anyone who was in its path,” Forest said.
It was a terrible feeling, Forest said.
“We really wish we could have pulled someone out of there. I’m from Ithaca, this is my home, and I really wanted to know if there was anyone in there who was alive.”
That job would require entire rescue crews and 12 hours of intensive, painstaking labor on the part of uniformed responders. What they discovered was everyone’s greatest fear. A young mother — Amanda Bush, 27 — was killed in the crash.
The Forests remained at the scene for an hour.
They had a dinner date for a family birthday that night but their son refused to go.
He didn’t want to eat in a restaurant because of what had happened, they said.
Forest, realizing that he’d only had half of a haircut, visited with a friend who finished the job.
Henderson, shaken by the experience, didn’t want to be interviewed, but we did meet the evening before. The Forests returned to the Big Time Barber Shop late Saturday afternoon to see friends; the shop was open for business.
“Now I know what it was like on 9/11; now I know what it was like at the Boston Marathon,” Forest said, referring to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, and the bombs detonated at the Boston race in 2013.
“It seems that you can’t be sure of anything – not sending your kids to school, not going out on a date to the movies or even going out to eat.”
Crawford writes: We thank these people for telling their story. We hope we have conveyed accurately what was expressed to us and we extend our thanks to them for their exemplary actions.