Wake-Up Call

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By Tom Loach

afton_wreck
Photo: Bruce Smith

It wasn’t quite 5:30 a.m. when the call came in. To tell the truth, I was still half asleep and only remember hearing the last part of the radio transmission calling for Engine 52 and Brush 55 to respond. Up and out of bed, into my pants and socks set at the side of the bed for just such events, off I went.

When I arrived at the firehouse, Engine 52 was already lit up and loading its crew. Captain Will Schmertzler would be driving, with Nick Barrell in the officer’s seat and Rollin Stanton and myself in the back. With earphones on and listening for the radio chatter, it soon became clear there was an accident on Interstate 64 at the top of the mountain, near mile marker 100. No sooner had we turned on to I-64 and started up the mountain than the fog rolled in, getting so thick you couldn’t see more than one of the fog lights on the side of the road ahead of us. Slowing down for both the fog and traffic we weaved our way up the emergency lane to the accident.

Now, I’ve seen many an accident on I-64, but from the looks of this one it had to rank up in the top 10 on the worst wreck scale. A tractor-trailer had gone off the road, torn up a good section of guard rail and landed upside down, with the trailer part of the rig in the median with the cab still on the road.

Since the accident was near the top of the mountain, we would be second due, with units from Waynesboro and Dooms arriving first. Normally, we send two pieces of equipment to accidents on I-64, with the primary responsibility to provide traffic blocking to ensure the accident site is secure and that fire and rescue personnel don’t become victims themselves.

Today, and especially with the thick fog, we would stretch Engine 52 across all lanes and close down all traffic. As we rolled to a stop, Nick, Rollin and I dismounted and walked up the road to report to the incident commander at the scene for further instructions. Rollin and Nick, who has attended advanced courses in extrication and first aid, would be a valuable asset to the Waynesboro crew, who were already starting to stabilize the truck cab and set up a plan to extricate the trapped driver. I would be working a hose line set up by the Dooms fire department, which is standard procedure when there is an extrication and the potential for fire due to spilled fuel or other potentially flammable substances. From Waynesboro’s rescue truck came all the specialized equipment needed for this type of accident and the need for extrication.

The strength of the metal cab that only minutes before protected the driver from almost certain death now would provide the resistance as the rescue crew tried to bend, cut and shape the twisted wreckage into an opening to remove the victim. While we certainly had all the tools necessary to do the job, time would now become the major opponent to a successful outcome and time was one thing we had little control of. In some ways, the scene appeared to be a study in corresponding opposites. On one you had the dark of night and fog so thick you could hardly see the lanes on the other side of the median, while the accident scene itself was aglow with high-intensity lights from multiple fire and rescue vehicles. The sound from all of the trucks and generators made it necessary to yell to be heard, in stark opposition to the silent EMT’s and paramedics, who, despite all their training and the medical equipment and drugs they carried, could do nothing but stand there until the driver could be removed.

As I stood holding the hose line and pulled up my collar in the cold rainy mist I could see the sweat pouring from the firefighters and rescue crew fighting to make sure the driver would see another day. Then, just as first light began to show, enough progress was made to provide a small window that allowed the driver to be removed from the cab. With the driver, now a patient, on the stretcher, it was time for fire and rescue crews to start the clean up and turn the scene over to the State Police and wrecker crews who had been waiting. For the crew of Engine 52, it would be time to mount up, head home and get ready for work with the feeling of satisfaction that you helped in some small way to save someone’s life. It was not a bad way to start the day.