I wanted to give it a few days before posting this as I wanted to take some time to reflect on what happened. As I’m sure most of you are aware of by now, a fire engine from China Grove Fire Department overturned last week, on the morning of 9/25/2020, while responding to a traffic accident with injuries on Southbound I85. This occurred on my shift and my crew were the ones inside the vehicle when this happened. The day started out, as any other would, with us floor testing and doing a weekly checkoff on Engine 432 to ensure that it was ready for any emergency call to which it may be dispatched. After finishing these checkoffs, we bypassed the usual truck wash, as it was a very rainy day, with the plan to wash 432 later in the afternoon if the weather cleared up. We then left Station 43 to fill the diesel tank on the truck, once again, to ensure she was ready for any call for service we might receive. Pulling off the front pad of the fire station, we had no idea that this would be the last time we would do so in E432. Shortly after pulling onto Main Street, we received an emergency dispatch to assist Bostian Heights Fire Department on a traffic accident with injuries on Interstate 85; a typical call for us, as we have been assisting Bostian Heights with calls on the interstate for several years. It was about 3 minutes into our emergency response that E432 began fishtailing on the wet roads and ultimately overturned.
The whole accident occurred within a few seconds of time, perhaps 5-7, but over the last week, I’ve spent hours replaying those few seconds in my mind. I’ve relived that rollover countless times, thinking back of what and who I saw while it was occurring, committing each detail to memory. I’ve also played the what-if game trying to think about what could have been done differently, which may have resulted in a different outcome. I had to stop the latter; it’s done no good. I can what-if and play out different scenarios in my mind all day long. The fact is, this accident still occurred and there is nothing I can do to change that. What is more important is where we go from here and how we prevent this from ever happening again. Those topics, I won’t write about here, as that’s not the intended purpose for me writing this.
I am the officer of the shift and my riding position is the front passenger seat. My Engineer was driving and my Firefighter was riding in the rearward facing seat behind me. I say “my Engineer” and “my Firefighter”, the same way I would say “my dad” or “my sister,” because these men are my family. I’m so grateful no one was seriously injured. We sustained some minor bumps and bruises, but remained relatively uninjured. I contribute this to the fact that I and my crew were all wearing seatbelts. I’ve always been adamant about the need for seatbelt usage while in fire apparatus, and anyone who works with me knows this. Had we not been belted in during the rollover, I’m sure our injuries would have been much more severe, or we may not have returned to our families at all that day. Since we were already in E432 when we were dispatched, we were in duty clothing, not turnout gear. I removed my boots and put my feet into my bunker pants and boots, which were sitting on the floor board in front of me. For a moment, I considered unbelting so that I could pull my bunker pants up to my waist. I decided not to do so and instead, to wait until we arrived on scene to fully dress out. This decision possibly saved my life.
Our fire engine made a half revolution during this incident and came to a rest on its roof. This left my crew and me hanging upside down by our seat belts. My first thought was to yell to my crew and see if they were ok. They both had this same thought and 3 voices called out almost in unison. My next thought was to get help on the way. I began frantically searching for the radio mic and had some difficulty finding it. I was so disoriented from the rollover and hanging by my belt that I was looking for the mic on the roof of the cab, instead of on the dogbox, where it has been mounted as long as I can remember. My engineer helped me locate the mic. I attempted to speak clearly into the mic when I called the dispatch center, but listening back to the audio recording of my radio traffic, my voice was full of fear; a type of fear which I had, up until this point, never experienced in the fire service. I had no idea at this point how badly injured my brothers were, all I knew was that they were alive. It was an odd feeling, experiencing both joy and terror at the same time. The next thing I heard was a loud thud as both my engineer and firefighter released themselves from their seatbelts and fell to the roof of the cab. I attempted multiple times to do the same, but I was never able to successfully release my seatbelt. I hung from my belt for several minutes as my Firefighter extricated himself from the truck. He ran around to the front of the truck and pulled out the broken windshields. I told him that I was fine and for him to focus his attention on helping my Engineer out of the truck. Once our Engineer had been extricated through the front windshield, my Firefighter came back to assist me. He used the knife I carry on my radio strap to cut my seat belt as I braced for the fall. I fell to the roof and began inching my way towards the rear doors. The front windshield area had been significantly deformed on my side and I didn’t think I could easily exit through it. I scooted across the roof on my back and as I neared the back of the cab, I noticed that the engine bay access panel was open and hanging down. Oil was dripping out, and in the moment of a slightly clouded thinking process, I decided that I needed to close the access panel door to keep oil out of the cab. I’m still not sure exactly why I did that. My best idea is that at this point, I didn’t realize how badly the truck was damaged and wanted to keep as much oil out of the cab as possible. It’s weird to think about. We have all spent so many hours over years ensuring that E432 was always well maintained, clean, and “parade ready” that I didn’t want the inside to become covered in oil. After this, I was assisted out of the truck by my Firefighter and 2 unknown bystanders who had stopped to check on us. I don’t know who you are, but I will always remember your faces and be thankful that you stopped to help us in our time of need.
I ran around the fire engine and saw my engineer hunched over, in obvious pain. My heart sunk a little. Within moments a crew from Rowan EMS was by our side. They assisted my Engineer into the ambulance to be taken to the hospital for evaluation. I told one of the paramedics that he wasn’t going alone and climbed in the back of the ambulance. Next, I had to do something I hoped I never would. I had to call his wife and let her know what happened. When she answered, I told her not to freak out and that her husband was okay, but that we had been in a rollover, he had minor injuries, and we were en-route to the hospital with EMS. During the ride to the hospital, I also made phone calls to my wife and parents. Surprisingly, everyone I called that day took the news very well. Our time at the hospital was relatively uneventful, and luckily, my engineer had no broken bones, just some deep bruising.
After leaving the hospital, my wife took me back to the scene of the rollover. That was a sad moment. Seeing the fire engine, which I have been riding for 13 years, in the conditions it was in, was tough to say the least. I experienced many of my fire service firsts in E432 including, my first structure fire and learning how to drive and pump. In the back of my mind, I knew she was totaled and that she would never return to her bay at Station 43. I found some of the China Grove Fire Department members there and immediately hugged them. This was probably the first time I had ever hugged these men and I am grateful that we were still around to do so.
There are so many individuals and fire departments that immediately came to our aid to assist with district coverage, picking up equipment and hauling it all back to Station 43, standing by at the hospital until we were released, or just being there for moral support, that I’m bound to miss a few. If I miss you, I apologize, but please know that my gratitude for what you did is immense. To Bostian Heights Fire Department, Landis Fire Department, Atwell Fire Department, Locke Fire Department, Kannapolis Fire Department, Rockwell Rural Fire Department, Faith Fire Department, Spencer Fire Department, Salisbury Fire Department, Rowan EMS, China Grove Police Department, Rowan County Sheriff’s Department, and North Carolina Highway Patrol, thank you all for assisting us in our time of need. What you all did that day, will never be forgotten.
To my Engineer, I want to thank you for fighting like hell to recover E432 once it began fishtailing. I know that you are a good driver, and up until the point that we began to roll, I had no doubt in my mind that you would recover from the sliding and get the truck straightened back out. To my Firefighter, thank you for getting yourself out of the overturned truck so quickly and immediately coming to our aid. I know you were hurt, but you pushed through it and assisted in the extrication of the rest of your crew. To both of you, I’m so proud to work with you, and appreciative of all you did that day.
In the days following the accident, we received such a large outpouring of prayers and well-wishes from our community that there is no way I could ever thank each one of you individually. If you are one of the people who said a prayer for us, just know that we were extremely grateful. People we have never met saw us in a time a need and stopped, even if just for a moment, to raise us up to the Good Lord! Thank you. At the end of the day, we all got to go home to our families and loved ones. I am truly blessed that after such a traumatic experience, I was able to go home, kiss my wife and hold my two sons.