A Hillsville man and a local Virginia State Trooper have been recognized for their heroic efforts in saving the life of a truck driver two days before Christmas of 2011.
Early in the morning of December 23 at 2:40 a.m., Trooper C.H. Campbell Jr. responded to a crash in Carroll County on Interstate 77 at the 22 mile marker. Upon his arrival, Trooper Campbell found a tractor trailer had overturned in a curve, crashed through a guardrail, and overturned into a deep ravine. Trooper Campbell and four citizens who had stopped at the scene, including Michael Todd of Hillsville, quickly went down the steep embankment to the truck that was totally engulfed in flames. The Trooper and the four citizens located the driver, who had been ejected from the crash and pulled him to safety.
Without the actions of Trooper Campbell and the four other citizens rendering aid, the driver would have most certainly died from his injuries and the consuming fire, the Virginia State Police said in a press release. The Virginia State Police Association recognized the heroic efforts of the four citizens who came to the aid of the injured truck driver. The Virginia State Association presented Citizen Awards to Todd, as well as Tim Wagaman of Rockwood, Tenn., and Bobby Hood and Robert Grice, both of Rocky Mount.
Todd, an employee of Bert’s Garage in Hillsville, was the first person on the scene. He said he was about 1,000 yards ahead of the incident as he was hooking up a vehicle that had hit a guardrail in an unrelated accident. After the tractor-trailer wrecked over the embankment, Todd said he left his customers in the truck and headed toward the ravine. About that time, he said gas tanks flew off the truck. When the fuel tank ruptured, he said the entire tractor blew up, leaving nothing more than a motor, a frame and some wheels. He said it blew the driver into a small portion of what was left.
Although chaos was completely surrounding him, Todd said he couldn’t think of doing anything other than trying to see if the driver could possibly be helped.
“I was the first one there and there was debris blowing right by my head. But I didn’t think a lot about it other than the fact there could be somebody there. I didn’t expect to hear somebody holler back, but he did,” Todd said. “I don’t know how he was conscious. He had compound fractures in both legs, crushed ribs and pelvis, and a couple of other injuries and some burns.”
Although Todd said the driver originally asked for help, once he got to him the driver said to leave him because it hurt so bad.
“And I said to myself, ‘I didn’t just run down 90 foot of embankment and fire with stuff exploding all around me for you to tell me to leave you here.’ He was lucky he was even conscious or alive,” Todd said. “The main thing is he is home with his family. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. I just did what I hope somebody would do for me or my dad. I would hope somebody would do that for him.”
Trooper Campbell said it was an extremely fortunate set of circumstances that led to Todd and other citizens being at the scene that night. He said it was early in the morning during a time when there is very little traffic on the highways. And since it was right before Christmas, he said most travelers had already reached their holiday destinations.
Campbell was originally dispatched to the wreck Todd was working for Bert’s Garage. As soon as he topped the hill coming northbound at milemarker 21.5, he thought he must have been sent to the wrong call because he saw a large fireball as soon as he turned the corner. About that time, he said Todd joined him at the top of the hill and both men started down the bank.
“The truck driver’s load had shifted evidently. The gentleman from Tennessee was right behind him and said it looked like the truck got shoved down the hole there. When you come out of the first S-Curve there, it is banked. There is a little bit of a flat place that causes trucks to belly out,” Campbell said. “But when we first got out, all you could see was the flames off the truck.”
Campbell said they could immediately see that the truck had jackknifed and the trailer had overrun the back end of the truck, causing it to shear and destroying the entire top end of the cap. With the momentum the trailer had, he said it went down the ravine and got caught in ‘the vee,’ causing it to explode.
Campbell said the two men fought their way down the steep embankment through briars and across the branch and to the other side of the hill where the driver was laid up against the front of the trailer. As they were going down the hill, he said the tractor-trailer blew up again. Later, he said he found one of the gas tanks off the truck all the way over in the median of the interstate.
“You could see his feet smoldering and pants starting to catch fire. In the time it took us to get to him, the fire melted the front of my boots and I had singe marks on my uniform and hat,” Campbell said. “What made it so hard, it was right there in the back side of the bank. It is a slate bank with two or three inches of loose dirt and leaves. It was straight up and down and you couldn’t get any traction. But we were able to get hold of him.”
The Trooper said Todd grabbed the man by the waist and one of the other citizens grabbed the man’s legs as they all tried to stabilize him. Campbell said he cupped his arms around the driver’s arms as the group tried to carry the man up the side of the bank. The steep ravine made the ascent extremely difficult.
“It was all we could do. They would hold on to his hips and legs and try to hold him, and I dug my heels in the bank and would just fall back, moving three to five feet at a time,” Campbell said. “We found a pallet and pulled it down to a little flat place in the bank. We took the pallet and threw it in the branch and I figured at least we were below grade to where if it blows up again, it would maybe go over us and we could duck.”
With the pallet, Campbell said the group continued to struggle up the hill again two and three feet at a time. By that point, the driver was screaming about the pain. Campbell reassured the man it was a good thing he had feeling, trying to keep his mind off the pain as much as possible.
“It took us 20 to 25 minutes to get him 30 feet down the bank and to the pallet. I figured that was the hardest, flattest surface I could make. We just tried to keep him alert,” Campbell said. “If it hadn’t been for Michael and those other fellows, there is no way one person could do all that. We just lucked up two or three people were there and they had stopped and those other people had the wreck. The two gentlemen from Rocky Mount, I’ll never forget it. Once we got the driver laid up in the branch, the guy looked at me and said he had a doctor’s appointment that morning for some kind of outpatient surgery. But they stopped for that to help us.”