Kay Rich had sprinklers spraying on her lawn about 15 miles northeast of Ashland on Monday evening as wildfires burned in the distance.
Eventually, she could smell the smoke, and the sky turned into a wall of darkness.
Her daughter-in-law, Jessica Bates, her granddaughter, Bailey Koch, and her grandson, Ethan Bates, had evacuated to Rich’s place from Ashland.
As Bates remembered it Wednesday evening, the wind shifted and Rich said, “You know, we need to go.”
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They decided to head for Protection, the town east of Ashland. It looked clear that way. Rich, 59, drove her pickup with her 16-year-old granddaughter beside her. Bates, 34, followed in her Ford Explorer with her 7-year-old son and the family’s 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Amelia.
What they didn’t know was that they were heading toward more danger.
They ended up going south on K-34. They passed through smoke and made it through a set of sharp turns.
“And then we had to start driving through fire,” Bates recalled. “I mean, it was to the point I could feel the heat in the inside of my vehicle.”
They passed through two or three areas of flames, and at one point, Bates saw Rich’s pickup drive off into the ditch. Rich was have trouble seeing; the headlights were useless in the smoke and dust.
But Bates could tell that Rich would be able to get back on the highway, so she passed her. Bates felt they had to keep moving.
They got through another section of fire and smoke.
And it started to clear.
“And then all of the sudden,” Bates said, “I saw a semi and (a) car, and I hit it. There wasn’t anything I could do.”
Bates’ Explorer struck the rear of a 2005 Envoy that had smashed into the middle of the semi, which had jack-knifed across the highway.
The impact caused Bates’ SUV to flip over and come to a rest on its top.
She unbuckled and crawled back toward her son, and as she did she heard Amelia, the dog, let out a yelp.
As Bates got her son out of his car seat, he seemed to lose consciousness for a few moments.
She noticed Rich, her mother-in-law, running toward them.
After maneuvering back onto the highway, Rich said, she saw a “gray thing in the middle of the highway,” realizing it was a semitrailer rig.
Rich saw that two vehicles had crashed into or around the semi: one in the middle of the rig, the other overturned.
At first, Rich went to the Envoy that had hit the semi. No one was inside.
Then Rich noticed the overturned Explorer from which Bates and her grandson had emerged.
There had been four people from Ashland in the Envoy – a man and woman in their 20s and two children, ages 6 and 2, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol. The four had managed to get out of the Envoy and walk to safety despite their injuries.
In the chaos and urgency after the crash, Rich and Bates never saw the people from the Envoy. The four had apparently moved to the other side of the semi, where EMS found them.
Nor did Bates and Rich ever see the driver of the semi, who had stopped the rig because of poor visibility, the Highway Patrol said. He got out of the rig, and the smoke and fire overcame him, and he died, the agency said.
Smoke still filled the air as Bates and her son got into the pickup with Rich and her granddaughter. They drove back a couple of miles north until they saw something that looked like a refuge from the fiery danger: a tilled, green wheat field. They stopped there and called 911.
The boy suffered an abrasion on the side of his head and bruising, his mother said Wednesday night.
A game warden found their dog with the wrecked SUV. The old terrier suffered a broken leg and is being treated at the vet’s. “She is OK,” Bates said.
Rich said Wednesday afternoon that she still feels shaken.
“If that’s what hell’s like, I don’t want to go there,” Rich said. “It was just traumatizing.
“Definitely, God was watching over us.”
The Kansas Highway Patrol has identified the semi driver who died as Corey Holt, 39, of Oklahoma City.
Considering the conditions on the highway after the fire stopped the semi and the other vehicles collided, it is “really shocking” that the toll wasn’t worse, Technical Trooper Michael Racy said Wednesday night.