The second car in the line of three slimed by the hagfish. Photo courtesy of David Champion.
It was a hot summer day on July 13, 2017, in Depoe Bay, Oregon. The driver of a large box truck was cruising through a construction zone when he misread traffic. As he overcorrected the steering wheel, he dislodged the containers of hagfish in his cargo space, dispelling 7,500 pounds of slime eels onto Highway 101 and causing a multi-vehicle accident.
Hagfish defend their food and themselves with a rapidly excreted slime. According to Smithsonian Magazine, they can fill a 5-gallon bucket in minutes. The scene looked like a nastier version of a Nickelodeon show, but with white slime instead of green.
David Champion, an EMT/firefighter with the Depoe Bay Fire District, heard the call go out. His dispatch informed the crew that they would be responding to a multi-vehicle accident with multiple patients on-scene and fish all over the road. Champion and the fire crew hopped into their engine and rolled out to the accident.
As the response team was cresting the hill, the accident scene came into view.
“The highway was just crawling toward us,” Champion said.
They could see several vehicles lined up and large bins laying in the roadway. But there was something off about them. The vehicles and pavement were covered in white slime, and there were pale pink fish all over the road.
Champion and his fellow firefighters offloaded from their trucks and approached the three cars with the most damage. Champion was assigned to the lead white car with two elderly females in the front seats.
A plastic bin was embedded in the front windshield of the car, which had funneled the eel-like fish into the vehicle, along with copious amounts of the slime produced by the hagfish. Champion walked to the front driver’s-side door. Both passengers were staring straight ahead at the highway, not saying a word. The driver was still white knuckling her steering wheel.Champion opened the door and asked the women if they were okay.
“This is my nightmare,” the driver replied without turning her head.
Champion assessed the two occupants of the car. They were not physically injured, but he couldn’t say the same for their mental health. He then asked them to step out of their car, which the driver adamantly opposed.
When he finally convinced her that exiting the vehicle was the best course of action, she stepped out of her vehicle and onto his boots. Champion then walked her off the road and away from the slime with her feet on top of his like a father dancing with his young daughter. Champion’s fellow firefighters assisted the passenger out of the vehicle.
“The entire floorboards of the cars were just full of the things just making slime,” Champion said.
Once the two elderly females were off the road, Champion went to the second car involved in the accident. Two young adult females, both Scandinavian tourists, were still seated in their vehicle, physically uninjured but visibly shaken. They were in shock and asked Champion if this kind of thing happens often in the US.
He quickly assured them that this was indeed a bizarre occurrence. The firefighters and state patrol officers secured the scene. All occupants were safe with the exception of some cuts and bruises. The next problem to solve was the thousands of hagfish slithering up and down the road, continuing to produce copious amounts of slime.
Operation eel cleanup with @OregonDOT 2 lanes now open pic.twitter.com/Lj2oIAzsFf
— Depoe Bay Fire Dist. (@DepoeBayFire) July 13, 2017
“If we start letting cars drive on this, is this gonna turn into Donkey Kong or [Super] Mario Brothers with the banana peel — what’s going to happen? Are people gonna fly off the highway?” Champion wondered.
The sun was beating down on the roadway, amplifying the already horrendous smell of the slime that covered the pavement and the vehicles. The Department of Transportation used a skid loader, thinking that if they put the blade to the ground, it would push the hagfish off to the side. Instead, the blade just smashed the fish into the ground, worsening the mess — and the smell.
Next up, the DOT attempted to use a street sweeper to dispel the hagfish but with equally smelly result. They resorted to using tanker trucks to spray the hagfish and their slime off the roadway. It took them the better part of the day to clean it all up.
“It was a nice, hot, sunny day in a sunlit area. So it started smelling awesome,” Champion said with more than a hint of sarcasm.
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion.
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