Men rescue driver from fiery crash

Published: May 15, 2008 | 7065th good news item since 2003

It looked like it was going to be a routine run for Colfax Fire Capt. J.D. Smith and Lt. Eric Harmison.

On the morning of Tuesday May 7 a semitrailer truck had toppled over in the westbound lanes of Interstate Highway 80 near Colfax. No one was seriously injured, but westbound traffic was brought to a standstill for most of the day by the overturned truck.

As Smith and Harmison returned to the firehouse, they saw what appeared to be a big ball of smoke or dust rising in the distance.

Smith and Harmison headed toward the smoke. When they arrived, they saw a driver was pinned in the cab of a big rig and the clock for survival was ticking.

The chain-reaction accident involving two semi trucks, a car and a van occurred about two miles from the first accident.

Smith and Harmison had about four minutes to pull the driver out of the wreckage before the cab became engulfed in flames. The two firefighters, with the help of a passer-by, relied on their muscles. There was no time to wait for the arrival of special equipment.

“As we pulled up, the passer-by was already trying to get the driver out,” Harmison said. “He was trying to get him uncaught from the seat and the steering column and get his leg free.”

The driver was unconscious and flames were spreading fast. “It was burning in our faces as we were working,” Smith said. “There was no time to mess around. Troopers and bystanders were using fire extinguishers, trying to buy us a little time.”

The three men struggled and finally were able to lift the driver from the cab and carry him to safety.

“I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to get him out,” Smith said. “But no one gave up.”

The men felt the rumble of an explosion – a tire may have blown from the heat of the fire – as they reached the ambulance with the unconscious driver. Smith turned around and saw the truck was engulfed in flames. It was 7:18 a.m., just four minutes after they had arrived at the scene.

“The passer-by got back in his car and left,” Harmison said. “I don’t even know who he was.”

The injured truck driver, Vlado Tomov, 28, of Chicago, was listed in fair condition late Tuesday at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. The two accidents caused the westbound lanes of I-80 near Newton to be closed for about eight hours. By 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, all lanes had reopened.

The Iowa State Patrol said in a report that Tomov failed to reduce the speed of the semi he was driving and hit a 2005 Volvo driven by Lawrence Cottrell, 35, of Michigan, causing a chain reaction. Tomov’s truck then clipped a truck driven by Terry Keys, 49, of St. Louis, Mo. The Volvo then hit a van driven by William Nagel, 37, of Malcom.

Tomov was taken to Des Moines by helicopter. Nagel was taken by ambulance to Skiff Medical Center in Newton and was later transferred to Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. Information on Nagel’s condition was not immediately available.

Published in Rescues
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