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A Preventable Tragedy

A Preventable Tragedy

Alaska Army National Guard
Anchorage, Alaska

I had just filled up my car and eased back onto Interstate 40 when I spotted a smoking mass of twisted metal ahead. I safely pulled my company truck to the side of the road, grabbed the fire extinguisher from the back and ran to the vehicle. I was the only person who stopped. Everyone else just kept driving past the scene.

When I got to the wreck, I cautiously stuck my head in and saw smoke coming from the dash and engine. I heard a raspy call for help from the rear of the van. I spun around and saw what appeared to be a woman and a child hanging in their seat belts. I asked, “How can I help?” She said, “Get my son. Help him out!” I immediately unbuckled the boy, scooped him into my arms and carried him a safe distance away from the vehicle. I laid him on the ground and started combat lifesaver techniques and buddy care first aid. Another motorist came to help me, and I left the boy in her care while I went back for the mother.

The steering column was now on fire and the flames were spreading into the driver’s compartment. I climbed into the back of the van, unbuckled the woman and helped her out the broken rear passenger-side window. She was in shock and either her ankle or leg was broken. She could hardly move and it took a lot to get her out of the van and away from the fire. I placed her on a nearby incline and checked her injuries. As she lay there, she asked, “Where’s my husband?” I said, “I don’t know. I don’t see him. Where was he?” She answered, “Look in the van. I can’t leave him!”

I had a sinking feeling. I went back to the van, looked inside and found the man lying on the inside of the window in the side door. He hadn’t been wearing his seat belt and was thrown around inside the vehicle as it overturned. A state trooper arrived and broke the window. The man fell out and landed in the ditch.

I grabbed a door panel that had been ripped off the van’s passenger side to use as a makeshift stretcher. A truck driver helped me pull the man away from the wreck. We got him far enough away so we could safely perform immediate first aid. He was bleeding from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth and having trouble breathing. The truck driver performed CPR on the man, but he couldn’t be saved. I watched him die right in front of me.

His wife and son were now my priority. I checked the boy’s vital signs and tried to encourage him. I prayed for him as we waited for help to arrive. I also went back to the van and tried to put out the fire. I pulled the pin and squeezed the handle on my extinguisher, but it didn’t work. I found out later it had been damaged when my company truck had been in an accident. No one had tested or replaced it, and I had no way of knowing it had been damaged.

The police, fire department and an ambulance arrived within about 20-30 minutes. A medical evacuation helicopter landed and picked up the boy. I anxiously watched as the helicopter flew away, headed for the hospital. Soon after, an ambulance came and took the mother to the hospital.

Only then did I finally have a moment to survey the scene. It was utter chaos. I hadn’t paid attention to the people in the other crashed vehicle except to glance in and ask them if they were OK. I gave my statement to the police and highway patrol. I then called my civilian employer’s safety officer, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, and reported the accident. After that, I cleaned up, hit the road once again and called my wife.

I went to the hospital to check on the mother and her son. I was allowed to go into the emergency room after I explained I’d pulled them both to safety. Once inside, I comforted the mother. She had lost her husband, and her son was in a coma. Sadly, her son never recovered and died a few days later.

I found out later the accident had been caused by a careless driver who left a ladder sitting unsecured in the back of his pickup. The ladder slid off and fell into the left lane of a two-lane highway. Another vehicle swerved to miss the ladder, went out of control, crossed the median and hit the van. Two people died and three more were injured because the pickup driver didn’t bother to properly secure his ladder.

There were a number of lessons to be learned from this tragedy. First, don’t be like the pickup driver. Be responsible and properly secure anything you are carrying on a vehicle. Second, seat belts make a difference. The unbelted van driver was thrown around inside the vehicle and died from his injuries. His wife’s injuries would have been much more severe — possibly fatal — if her seat belt hadn’t restrained her. The people in the passenger car were wearing their seat belts and survived with minor injuries. Third, anything you leave loose in a vehicle can become a deadly missile, especially during a rollover accident. The 7-year-old boy was restrained properly, but that didn’t keep him from being fatally injured by a loose object that struck him. Finally, make sure any safety equipment you carry in your vehicle is tested properly. The time to find out your extinguisher isn’t working properly is not when you’re trying to fight a fire.

On the plus side, the fact that I was the first person on the scene might have been a coincidence, but the lifesaving training I received in the Army was not. I have no doubt the years of training I received in buddy care and combat lifesaving helped me care for the victims of this accident.


If you encounter an emergency requiring assistance while driving, your personal roadside safety should be your first priority. Follow the tips in the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s emergency roadside assistance brochure to help prevent one accident from becoming two: https://safety.army.mil.

  • 26 September 2021
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 619
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4