There was nothing anyone could do, especially not in morning rush hour traffic. A truck tire was flying through the air from one side of I-85 and toward the cars driving southbound near Clairmont Road.
“It seriously was 50-something feet in the air and it came down and hit the van, right where the windshield and roof come together,” Calvin Williamson, a witness, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “As soon as the tire hit, the van slowly started going toward the wall.”
The tire’s impact killed Aila Masud, 47, instantly Friday morning as she drove her 16-year-old daughter, Sana, to school, investigators said. DeKalb County police say Michael Green, 28, of Bartow County, was driving a 1998 Dodge Ram 3500 northbound on I-85 when a front tire came off the truck and flew over the concrete median, striking the Masuds’ van.
Wrecks happen on the stretch of interstate, where tens of thousands of vehicles pass a day while heading toward downtown. But this was no fender-bender or stalled car. It was far worse: A tire loose from its vehicle and airborne, sailing over several lanes of a busy interstate.
Police had not determined late Friday what caused the tire to come off the truck or if Green would face any charges, according to Mekka Parish, spokeswoman for DeKalb police. Neither Green nor his passenger was injured, police said. Green told police he had to make a defensive maneuver because another vehicle came into his lane and he was trying to avoid a collision. The wreck closed several lanes of the interstate during the morning commute as investigators tried to determine what happened.
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Williamson, of Norcross, says the moments before and after the crash were the scariest of his life. He said he was driving in the center lane of the interstate behind the blue van around 8 a.m., following his daily commute to school. As he watched the horrific scene unfold, Williamson said he got out of his car and ran to help.
The roof of the Plymouth Voyager was gone, Williamson said. The driver wasn’t moving, but a terrified teenager had blood on her and was hysterical.
“She was standing up through the roof and screaming for help,” Williamson said. “All I knew is that I wanted her out of that car.”
Williamson said he checked the motionless Aila Masud for a pulse, but couldn’t find one. He couldn’t bring himself to tell the teenager, and instead pulled her away from the wreckage.
“She held on to me and cried,” Williamson said. “She was screaming, ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘What is going on?’”
Police and firefighters arrived at the scene moments later and took Sana to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for evaluation. The teenager wasn’t seriously injured.
Williamson said he described to police what he saw, starting with a flying tire and a driver, Aila Masud, who couldn’t avoid it. Both Williamson and the Masuds were traveling in the center lane when the tire landed, crushing the van. After the impact, the van veered toward the median, where it stopped, likely with the driver’s foot on the brake.
“If she had gone flying into another lane, she would’ve hit other cars,” Williamson said. “She had nowhere to go. She was going to get it.”
In 2009, tire failure caused five fatal wrecks, according to the latest numbers available from the Georgia Department of Transportation. There are not numbers specifically on flying debris-related crashes, but they have occurred on Atlanta roads. On July 11, 2012, an 8-year-old boy was killed when a part from a tractor-trailer flew through the windshield of his family’s SUV. In January, no one was injured when a tractor-trailer hit a median wall on I-285, sending chunks of concrete flying.
Still, flying debris was the last thing anyone expected Friday. Several hours after the crash, Williamson said he got a phone call from Aila Masud’s husband, thanking him for taking care of Sana until help could arrive.
“You could hear the pain in his voice,” Williamson said. “He was still shell-shocked.”
Williamson said he’s still in shock, too. The images are still vivid, and he said he’s heartbroken for a family who lost their loved one in an instant. Anyone could have been Aila Masud, he says. “It very well could have been me.”