News: VTANG firefighters pull injured trucker out of wreckage
Story by Senior Airman Victoria Greenia
SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - Staff Sgt. Brannon Soter, a Fairfax resident and member of the Vermont Air National Guard Fire Department, arrived on the scene of the accident to determine whether they would need to begin a rescue or retrieval mission for the driver who had just plummeted 70 feet into a ravine with his tractor-trailer. The wreckage was like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces thrown in a heap on the ground.
The evening of June 25 was just one more in a row of summer nights deluged by rain that had been ceaselessly pounding the Green Mountain State, flooding roads and lawns and testing motorists’ skills. Hydroplaning seemed to have been the culprit in this case, in a very busy section of the interstate over Winooski River Bridge. Three cars had hydroplaned and authorities believed that Dany Gauthier, a Canadian truck driver delivering a load of paper, was so concerned about saving others that in an effort to avoid a collision, he ended up crashing through the guardrail and into the ravine.
At 8:53 p.m. witnesses of the accident called for rescue and five minutes later the VTANG firefighters were on scene.
Heavy rains pelted and obscured Soter’s vision as he peered around with his flashlight for the driver. Standing next to what was left of the truck’s cab, now a flattened square, the military firefighter saw no sign of the missing driver. He asked a police officer, the first person on the scene, if he knew where the man might be.
“There,” the officer said, pointing to a chunk of twisted metal, about fifteen feet away from the steering wheel, in an area Soter would never have thought the driver would be.
“Where?” Soter gingerly made his way to where officer had indicated, but between flashes of lightning and a relentless curtain of rain, he could only make out a shoe. Then he realized that was the only part of the trucker uncovered by the smashed vehicle.
His heart sagged as he thought, There is no way that man could have survived this. But he had to be certain. He shifted a heavy piece of truck off the body and to his surprise, the driver moaned and slightly moved. The Canadian had sustained serious trauma and severe blood loss was a major concern, but against all odds, he clung to life.
Soter excitedly contacted the VTANG fire department’s Assistant Chief Eugene Humphrey, “We have a viable rescue, I repeat, a viable rescue! Please send equipment!”
Humphrey, who had been monitoring the scanners between rescue workers, was also dumbfounded. By all accounts, the driver should have not survived. The chief of the Winooski Fire Department, concerned by all the factors of the accident, asked if the VTANG fire department take charge of patient extrication while other departments concentrated on traffic flow, fire prevention, and patient care. Without hesitation, Humphrey said yes and put out the word for backup.
“We have a highly trained crew here,” he later said of the VTANG fire department. “But I knew that this would be testing every aspect of their skills. The rain made vision poor, the lightning was a threat, and the crashed vehicle was next to a swollen river. Diesel drenched the ground, rocks, and truck where the engine block was still very hot. At any time a deadly fire could have sparked, while my guys were precariously trying to save this truck driver’s life.”
Soter, along with two other VTANG firemen, one of them traditional and one a civilian, began the arduous task of clearing a path to Gauthier. The truck had landed wrapped around a large concrete bridge support with the cab on one side and the flatbed on the other. Caught in the middle, somehow, was the truck driver.
Every action had to be executed with the delicate balance of haste and care, since ticking minutes lowered chances of survival, but disrupting the rubble too much could turn the mission from rescuing a life to retrieving a body.
“We dedicate our lives to saving other people’s lives,” Soter said later. “We found him alive, and we were going to keep him that way.”
Using enormous hydraulic scissors to cut through rubble, they fought a path through the wreckage. At times they could see almost nothing, and situational awareness was hampered.
Worried for the safety of the men under his supervision, Soter would yell out every thirty seconds, “Is everyone ok?” Only when each responded in the affirmative would work.
It seemed to take a long time, but within minutes they cleared out area where they could be near Gauthier. Soter quickly saw that simply pulling the man from the wreckage was not an option; jagged, ripped metal would have shredded his body. A rescue person would have to jimmy into the small hole, buttress debris with own his body, and lift Gauthier up so a board could go underneath and secure him.
Airman 1st Class Dylan Desranleau from Essex knew that with his slighter build that he was the obvious choice. When Soter’s eyes landed on him, Desranleau hesitated for a second, thinking about the dangerous situation he’d be entering in which he could lose his own life. But training and dedication kicked in after that brief doubt, and he stepped forward.
Desranleau was grateful that he had just completed training for this type of scenario. Only few months prior to that Thursday night, Desranleau had gone to a North Carolina Air Guard site for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) instruction, which trains firefighters to move through caved-in concrete walls or collapsing metal structures during a natural-disaster rescue. The hours of attuning safety for oneself while trying to help another came back to him as he painstakingly shimmied through a cave of hot, spiky metal debris.
He was even more grateful for his protective fireman suit as he navigated the narrow tunnel. Diesel fumes threatened to overpower him, and he knew that like the ground outside that everything was doused with fuel. At one point his hands came in contact with something heavy and powerfully hot; he had found the engine block of the truck, so scorching he felt it through his fireman’s gloves. He wasn’t surprised, since it had only been around twenty minutes since the crash, but he gained a new appreciation for his gear.
Finally he was able to get his hands beneath Gauthier, who seemed unconscious but was erratically moving in obvious pain.
“It’s ok, I’m here to help you,” was the first thing Desranleau said to the trucker, using psychological first-aid. “We’re going to get you out of here.”
After securing the injured man with boards underneath him, the team managed to move him from the treacherous cocoon. It was a major victory, but there was more to be done. Before emergency medical technicians could work on stabilizing him, VTANG firemen needed to move him up a steep slope riddled with diesel-drenched rocks. By then two more Air Guard rescue members had arrived on the scene, and using haul lines that had been positioned by another department, they brought Gauthier up to safety.
Twenty-one minutes had passed since they arrived to the crash scene. Gauthier was in critical condition, but stable, and taken to Fletcher Allen Health Care. Vermont Air Guard responders did a second, and then a third, sweep of the crash site to be sure there were no other vehicles or people involved. No one breathed a sigh of relief until they were satisfied there were no other casualties.
Desranleau later said this was by far the worst accident he had helped in recovery with and was glad he had gone through the USAR training through the Guard. He said he is eager to learn more skills to benefit his community through his job of being a VTANG firefighter.
Now, after nearly a week has gone by, Soter and Desranleau said they may go and visit Gauthier, despite the fact emergency responders try not to become emotionally involved with the people they help. Becoming too close to a patient may affect their response in a future emergency, they said, but they are just amazed by the man who survived such an accident.
“I know Dany Gauthier saved lives that day,” Soter said. “If he had not swerved to avoid the cars ahead of him, he would have been like a wrecking ball through those vehicles. I respect him for having the instinct to put other’s safety ahead of his.”