Surviving to build a 1927 T-35 Bugatti


MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md — June 26, 2011 — It was only last summer when I was waiting for my friend Cristhian París to pick me up at the entrance of my nephew’s apartment house. He had asked me to be outside waiting at 9:00 a.m. and it was way past that time.

When he finally did show up, I realized the waiting had been worth it. He was driving a beautiful machine from the past.

He later told me it was a replica of a 1927 T-35 Bugatti that he had built over several decades. He had obtained original parts from all over the world, as well as make-fit parts from other cars and had even fabricated part of the vehicle. The car was impressive. Not much metal between the driver and the road. The seats felt like your rear end would be scrapping the pavement.

This was a Sunday in Bogotá, Colombia and any one that had a car was out enjoying the respite from the rain of the previous few days. The North Highway looked like the strip of any American city on a Saturday night in the 1960s. People were riding the best cars they could afford and feeling great.

However, they weren’t ready for the 1927 Bugatti.

I felt as if I were a returning hero in a ticker tape parade in New York, as almost everyone we encountered had to wave and take our photo. A photo of us, two old guys with a lot of white har – but old guys riding in one of the most sought-after classic cars in the world.

Our destination that day was an Antique and Classic Car club event in a small town about 50 miles from Bogotá named Cajicá. Towns in this part of Colombia usually have Native American names. At the event there were about 40 cars of all makes and imagination. Most of them were American cars from the 30s, 40s and 50s as well as a several European cars like Mercedes and Peugeots.

The meeting started with Mass, as Colombia is (nominally) VERY Catholic. After, there was a parade of the cars, while an announcer described each one and praised the work done on them. I truly enjoyed the occasion, but most of all I enjoyed my friend’s company.

This same person, so alert and lively that day, had technically died 20 years before.

He went through one of the most incredible experiences that I have ever heard of, and it makes one wonder whether some people just are better at staying alive.

This unbelievable (but true) episode started with Cristhian and his family driving back from a week end at a friend’s vacation home outside Bogotá. He was driving with the sun roof open, because his wife was a smoker. As they approached the city, everyone but Cristhian was napping in the car as it was late and they were tired after a day in the sun and plenty of suds. Following Cristhian’s car, his oldest son was driving another vehicle with a couple of his teenage friends inside.

As the car reached a long straightaway, my friend suddenly saw that coming at him were 2 large trucks, one trying to pass the other. As the road was only one lane in each direction, his only option to avoid a fatal collision was to get onto the shoulder.

But what a shoulder. This was an elevated road with only a tiny sliver of shoulder before dropping off to deep ditches on each side. The ditches were 20 feet deep, because they were purposefully used to collect all the rain water and sewage from 2 small towns nearby. This concoction was then diverted and used, to irrigate large vegetable orchards which bordered the road, during the Colombian dry season.

As my friend steered he miscalculated. His right wheels came completely off the shoulder and the car flipped over into the ditch. The car was now completely upside down. As the car sank rapidly into the muck, those who had been sleeping woke up in terror as they became aware of the predicament they were in.

One by one, each wiggled around in his seat, bringing his head to the floor of the inverted car – now the only place where there was still some air. Though they had been asleep, this gave them the air they needed to await escape.

Ironically, my friend Cristhian, the only one who had been awake, was trapped and unable to move around. The steering wheel made it impossible for him to turn around or bend to the floor to breathe, now that the floor was the only place with air.

As you will see, he panicked.

His son’s car full of strapping teen boys had managed to get onto the shoulder safely. The boys jumped out, immediately thinking and grabbing small boulders from the side of the road, and dove into the repulsive mixture of water and sewage. They were able to break the windshield and one by one everyone was pulled out, except for my friend. In despair since he couldn’t flip over, he had tried to escape through the sun roof, and had gotten stuck in the silty sewage stew. At the (now) bottom of the car partly through the sunroof, they couldn’t find him.

For about 15 minutes the rescuers kept diving down to the sunken car to try to find Cristhian and pull him out. At that point, they assumed he had drowned, though they wanted to find him. His son went down one last time, and while feeling inside the car he felt what he believed was his father’s shoe. As he grabbed it, he discovered it was still attached to his dad. With the help of one of his friends he pulled the body of his father out and laid it on the shoulder. Everyone assumed he was dead, and there were no signs of life. He had been in the muddy bottom of the ditch for about 17 minutes.

Ambulances had been called by passing drivers, and they began to arrive. They took care of the victims who had been pulled out. The passengers were basically uninjured and only in shock from the experience, although temporarily suffering from hypothermia from the cold water. After checking on the live passengers and sending them on ahead to the local hospital, an EMT finally went over to where Cristhian’s body lay.

He needed to confirm him as DOA. Due to his training, the EMT was able to detect an incredibly minimal pulse and equally minimal breathing. Miraculously, Cristhian was alive after being in the mud for about 17 minutes and lying on the road for several minutes after that.

For nearly a year afterward Cristhian still hung between life and death, due to horrible infections of every kind from the muck he lay in and inhaled before rescue. He lost a lung. He retains only partial use of the other.

He received IVs of every known antibiotic available.

It seems he was born under a lucky star. The doctor treating him had just completed a special residency in France on how to treat near-drowning victims, so with his help, Cristhian survived that long recovery.

My friend won that struggle, and went on to have more children and now has three grand children. In yet another irony, he makes his living from cars. He specializes in locating parts for German cars and refurbishing old American cars. He also rents these rebuilt cars for special occasions like weddings and proms. He is at his shop six days a week, arguing with mechanics and complaining about everything, just like the rest of us who don’t realize how lucky we are to be alive to argue and complain.

Mario Salazar, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker and not surprisingly, pacifist. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus and Facebook at Mario Salazar

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