EMS Crew Saves Tennessee Trooper From Fiery Crash
If the ambulance crew hadn't been right there.
If a Knoxville police officer hadn't been seconds away. If the second officer hadn't circled back on a hunch.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Lowell Russell, 39, was critically injured in a violent collision with a flatbed truck while parked in his cruiser on the westbound shoulder of Interstate 40 near Walker Springs Road early Tuesday morning.
Authorities said he likely would have died, though, if not for a succession of emergency personnel who miraculously happened upon the scene within seconds of the 2:50 a.m. crash. They frantically worked to free the unconscious trooper from the mangled wreckage, pulling Russell clear just as his cruiser burst into flames.
"As we say time and again - divine intervention," Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said Tuesday afternoon. "It's a game of seconds. If neither the officers or the paramedics had been in the area, we would have had a much more tragic situation."
First on the scene were Paramedic Freddie Leslie and his partner Kristi Graham, who were traveling back to McMinn County in an American Medical Response ambulance after transporting a patient from Athens to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.
The duo was driving about a quarter-mile behind as the commercial truck slammed into the rear of the cruiser, shoving it across three lanes of traffic and into the concrete median wall.
"We saw a car spin and hit the concrete wall and burst into flames," Leslie said. "I was pretty scared. ... It's not every day you have to pull someone from a burning car."
The flames quickly spread toward to the unresponsive trooper as he sat slumped over his seat belt. Just as Leslie exhausted one fire extinguisher, Knoxville Police Department Officer Andrew Keith came upon the burning cruiser.
"I wasn't real sure if somebody had hit it or if he had lost control - I didn't ask anyone, either," said Keith, a K-9 officer who had been en route along westbound I-40 to help another officer search a vehicle.
Leslie said he and an unidentified passerby forced open the cruiser's door to reach Russell. The civilian then worked to cut the trooper free from his seat belt, which was locked tight from the crash, said Keith, while he and the paramedics tried to beat back the growing flames with anything available. The man even gave Keith the shirt off his back, the officer said.
"With all the pressure of the car going up, I'm sure it happened real fast in real time. But in my mind, we couldn't get him out of the car fast enough," Keith said. "When we pulled him out, laid him down, I looked back to the car and his seat was already on fire."
In the same instant, the officer said, the flames began igniting emergency flares and shotgun ammunition stored inside the cruiser.
"The rounds started cooking off," Keith said. "Probably in the last few seconds before we got him out. ... We got him out of there seconds before it went up."
The ambulance crew immediately began treating Russell. Meanwhile, Officer Steve Taylor - who graduated in the same KPD cadet class with Keith in January 2007 - arrived. Taylor had been eastbound on I-40 moments earlier when he noticed Russell's cruiser parked on the westbound shoulder. Taylor had taken the next exit to circle back and see if the trooper needed backup just as the crash occurred.
Once on scene, Taylor jumped in the ambulance and repositioned it to shield the rescuers from the fire as they performed CPR on Russell, Keith said. Taylor was not available for comment Tuesday.
Knoxville Fire Department crews also soon arrived to extinguish the flames.
Leslie, who said he sustained "very minor burns" to his face during the rescue, later accompanied Russell to the hospital in a Rural/Metro ambulance. Once things subsided, the identity of the civilian passerby who helped the others became clear, Keith said. "He did not say a word to me," said Keith. "I actually didn't know he was the driver that had struck the cruiser until later, until I saw Officer Taylor take him into custody."
Eric D. Lewis, 32, of Orlando, Fla., now is being held in a Knox County jail in lieu of $10,500 bond. He faces felony charges of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.
Lewis "apparently fell asleep or was drowsy" when his truck veered onto the shoulder and struck the cruiser, according to THP Sgt. Randall Martin. Russell, working a midnight supervisor shift, had just completed a traffic stop and was filling out paperwork when he was struck.
"The trucker drove 200some feet on the shoulder and another 1,200 feet after he hit the trooper," Martin said.
Martin added that he expects misdemeanor charges of failure to comply with the move-over law and failure to exercise due care to be filed as well. Lewis, a driver with FSH Trucking Co. in Orlando, was hauling a load of buckets for construction equipment from Bedford, Pa., to Amarillo, Texas, according to his employer. His co-driver was asleep in the cab's sleeper birth during the crash. Neither trucker was injured.
The president of FSH said Lewis has been driving for the company, which has only one truck, for less than a year.
Russell, a 14-year veteran of the THP, remained in critical condition Tuesday night. He sustained a brain injury, fractured neck and spine, fractures to all of his ribs, second-degree burns to his neck and back, and lung damage from smoke inhalation, according to a Facebook update posted by Crystal Brown Russell, his sister-in-law.
Martin added that the injured trooper had responded "non-verbally" to medical personnel at the hospital.
The head of the Tennessee Highway Patrol called Russell "one of Tennessee's finest" and expressed gratitude for the quick work of the KPD officers and emergency responders.
"Our troopers put their lives on the line every day to keep citizens safe," according to a statement from THP Col. Tracy Trott. "It is especially difficult when one of our troopers is injured in the line of duty. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sgt. Lowell Russell and his family during this difficult time. We pray for his recovery and thank him for his service to our state."