By Salena Zito
HOT SPRINGS, Virginia — Where the tidy brick sidewalks end at the edge of the business district, the carnage was jarring. Two cars had their roofs sheared off. Shattered glass was strewn everywhere. In the distance, an older van was upturned, on its roof, alongside two vehicles on their sides and another car in a ditch, completely upside down and touching the creek.
Known colloquially as Sam Snead Highway, the winding road that hugs the Allegheny Mountains and serves as the thoroughfare for this charming town is still damp from a violent evening downpour. The initial assumption is that all six vehicles met this gruesome fate after hydroplaning on the single-lane highway.
But that assumption is wrong — as good a lesson as any for never judging a book by its cover, even when the evidence is visually overwhelming.
Greg Burton is among 20 or so people who showed up to help extract these vehicles from their shattered state. Yet, he appeared to possess no sense of urgency. Dressed in gray overalls with reflective piping, a rescue patch, and a white hard hat, he was not in charge of a true accident scene. He was, rather, in charge of training rescue volunteers. They huddled in teams of five around several different life-and-death scenarios that required an appropriate perception and response from those first on the scene.
“So, I’m an instructor for this class that trains local volunteer firefighters and emergency first-responders,” Burton said. “But I’m a volunteer as well.”
Burton, from nearby Covington, is part of the Westrock Rescue Squad based inside the massive paper mill where he works. Burton said they were simulating different kinds of car crashes that the volunteers might happen upon at any given time.
“So, these two cars here, we simulated an accident of a car is on its wheels like you see it, but we had to take the doors off,” he said. “We call this vehicle extrication, so if somebody’s trapped inside of a car, we teach them different things they might have to do to get them out of the car. So, we did basically the same maneuvers with the cars on their side and the cars that are completely rolled over and teach them what they are going to do to secure it and get patients out of it.”
Everyone at the class will be one of those first on the scene when duty calls.
The sense of community is evident everywhere in this small tourist town of fewer than 4,500 people.
Seth Ellis is normally behind the counter of Bacova Beer Company, the distillery he opened a couple of years ago. He quickly joined the local chamber of commerce and then decided to add a restaurant. It opened last year during the height of the pandemic in one of the most restrictive states in the country.
Ellis smiled and shrugged at the timing and explained that he did beer runs locally and regionally, traveling as far away as Charlottesville to stay afloat. He and his wife settled here years ago when she took a job with the forest service. He is from Alabama, and she is from Ohio. “But this community is home,” he said. “I love the sense of everyone having each other’s back.”
Miguel Rosado came to Hot Springs from Puerto Rico five years ago and brought his family with him. “Things were not good there, and I wanted a better life and opportunities for my family,” he told me. Rosado said he took a job with the Homestead resort, and within a year, he had his own home and had put down roots. During an impromptu tour of the hotel’s William McKinley presidential suite, he spied an ancient map of the island he once called home hanging on the wall, a tribute to the peace treaty McKinley signed with the Spanish government, which ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898.
Pointing to a town on the map across the bay from San Juan, Rosado said, “This is where I am from.”
With her chestnut hair pulled up in a ponytail, Debbie Young was overseeing the volunteers, who she said respond to approximately 350 calls a year. “The incidents range from heart attacks on the trails or at the hotel to tourists not quite knowing how to navigate the steep and winding roads,” she said.
The age range of the volunteers spans from 24 to 60, Young said. Many are legacy volunteers whose fathers’ fathers’ fathers did the same thing for their community in their own time.
Many assumptions about small-town America are disproven over the course of the afternoon. Hot Springs is filled with stories about aspiration, respect and hope, told by people with genuine diversity of color, roots and background who call this place home.
Theirs is a way of life that can be found in all of the towns nestled in the nooks and crannies of America, something few people experience, instead of flying overhead or zipping by on an interstate.
A passing motorist might assume that the grisly scene apparently unfolding on the old “valley road” is genuine. If you don’t stop and listen to people with lives very different from your own, you might never really know the rest of the story.