All photos by the author
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.In the summer of 2001, when I was six, I plunged more than 20 metres into a Swiss ravine, along with my dad, mum, sister and dog. We fell between the rocks into freezing cold water, and were luckily able to free ourselves and climb back up. It's a miracle nobody got hurt, but my dad – who was driving at the time – has felt guilty ever since. Mostly, he’s wondered if he could have avoided the accident. I was curious about the current state of his guilt, so decided to ask him about it.
Every year, my whole family heads from the Netherlands to a summer house in Italy. Driving through Switzerland on the way home in 2001, we decided to take the Gotthard Pass (which hairpins through the Swiss Alps at an elevation of 2,106 metres), because there was a lot of traffic on the alternative, the Gotthard tunnel. When we reached the top of the mountain, I remember having a big snowball fight. On the way down, my dad discovered the brakes weren't working."After that, it all happened very quickly,'' he says. "We dodged two cars coming from the opposite direction, then went straight through the guard rail and flew into the ravine below, which was 22 metres deep. The fall itself only lasted about five seconds. I could see the water and rocks getting closer."
The car landed bonnet-first between some rocks. The water started flowing in and was quickly up to our waists. "We had to get everyone out of the vehicle as quickly as possible," dad remembers. The current was so strong that we couldn't open the doors, so my parents wound the windows down and climbed out. One by one, my mum pulled us from the car.My uncle, who had been following closely behind in a car with his family, had seen us go through the guard rail. "He told his wife and kids they weren't allowed to leave the car, because he didn’t want them to see our corpses," dad tells me. Along with a passerby, my uncle went down to the wreckage and helped us all climb up again.
Up there, the road was filled with people, police officers, firemen, ambulances and our extended family. We were checked out by a paramedic, who concluded that besides some bruises from our seat belts, we were fine. Because nobody was seriously hurt, we were released.My dad had to go straight to the police station. "I was interrogated for three hours in my wet clothes, by a man I could barely understand," he recalls. "The police officer asked how fast I had been driving, where we were from, and insinuated that I might have done it on purpose, because I wanted to get rid of my family. That’s when I looked at him angrily and said, 'OK, shall we stop now?'"
The wreckage was pulled out of the ravine by the fire department later that day, and we hired a replacement car.Our initial shock quickly made way for an immense sense of gratitude that we were all alive. Because everyone was exhausted – and presumably no one wanted to drive home yet – we spent the night in a hotel. That night was pretty stressful for all of us. My mum had bad nightmares and my dad started doubting himself.
“I kept running through everything in my mind and couldn’t figure out how it had happened," he says. "Did I make a mistake? Was I to blame for everything?”The next morning, my mum and dad went to the scene of the crash, and just stood holding each other close for a while. "The knowledge that we could have all been dead hit us when we saw how deep the ravine really was," dad says. After that, my dad decided it was time to get going, although he says the first few kilometres were nerve-wracking.
Two days later, were were back at home in the Dutch city of Groningen. My dad took a few days off work to recover from the shock. "I couldn’t sleep, I kept mulling it over, and had to deal with the insurance claims," he says. He got sent a fine for destroying the guard rail, but refused to pay it.Dad says he declined an offer for counselling. "I didn’t think I needed it," he says. "I had my wife to talk about it with me. And that's what we did, pretty much on a daily basis."For months, he was tormented by guilt, until he received the technical report about the cause of the accident. It turns out the brake fluid had run out. "A weight was lifted off my shoulders," he says. “On the other hand, I did feel guilty about not checking the brake fluid levels."It’s been 18 years since we all plunged into that ravine. In the summers following the crash, we still went to Italy, but we took a different route to get there. My dad’s guilt has slowly made way for an appreciation for life. "Since the crash, I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, because I know it can all be over in a heartbeat," he says."And I always make sure we have enough brake fluid."