Off-duty Calif. Medic, Samaritans Risk Lives at Fiery Crash
Jan. 11--"Boom." Must be the sound of a gunshot.
Smoke. Must be from the nearby homeless encampment.
Those were two thoughts Vacaville resident Perry Hookey had as he drove to work on Highway 37 in Vallejo before dawn Thursday morning.
Reality, however, was far from either of those scenarios and, ultimately, more tragic.
A big-rig and pickup truck collided on the highway shortly before 6:40 a.m. for an as-of-yet unknown reason, forcing both vehicles into a concrete Sonoma Boulevard over cross rail, and the big-rig went farther -- tumbling down the embankment.
Hookey, an off-duty paramedic with 24 years experience was heading to work at Medic Ambulance's Couch Street office. He and two other passers-by, "Tony" and "Stephen," stopped at the scene, and shortly after realized something was missing -- the big-rig's driver.
Inside the truck, hauling Ace Hardware household products, was William Ballard, 43 of Citrus Heights, who had been knocked unconscious in the upside vehicle, his body hanging by his seat belt. A passer-by with a fire extinguisher tried to put out the flames to no avail.
The truck was engulfed in flames. In fact, the sole of Ballard's shoe had caught fire and a muffled "boom" went off in the trailer behind him soon after Hookey crawled into the crumbling remains of the cab.
"I basically just went into medic mode, paramedic mode. I knew I had a job to do, I knew what the guy needed," Hookey, who is Medic Ambulance's education/training coordinator, recalled later Thursday. "My hands are all I had to work with. My goal was just getting the poor guy out of the truck, because I didn't want to just stand by and hear him burning to death."
Hookey sent Tony looking for a knife to cut the seat belt while he and Stephen crawled inside the burning truck. It quickly became apparent that the rescuers had no time to wait.
In the process of trying to push Ballard up out of his seat belt, Hookey would not even feel his arm getting burned by dripping debris -- immune to the pain while his adrenaline raced.
Ballard, who would be dragged from the burning truck by Hookey and Stephen in time, later succumbed to his injuries at Kaiser Permanente Vallejo Medical Center. Hookey said while his efforts were what he humbly considered as "just doing my job," the other two -- Tony and Stephen were "the people who should be recognized."
"They're everyday citizens that were just on their way to work. They stopped and they helped," Hookey said.
The rescue, though ultimately unsuccessful, came just in time.
"Literally, we had no sooner got the guy out and the whole cab just burst into flames. You could feel the flames," Hookey said.
Helen Pierson, Medic Ambulance's chief financial officer, said her employee is "way too humble."
"To follow through, to get in there, to feel the heat, to know the fire's going on -- not knowing if there's going to be a blast -- it almost is like a movie script, that (the truck) goes off the minute they take the body out," Pierson said. "The three of them are just three wonderful angels that were there. It's truly unfortunate that the man did not live, but this man had the best chance ever to make it."
As Ballard was tended to immediately after his escape by paramedics, Hookey and his coworkers knew their patient was in critical condition -- he coded on the scene, while Vallejo firefighters worked behind them to keep the flames at bay.
The 24-year-old Petaluma driver of the pickup truck that had collided with the big-rig declined medical treatment at the scene, according to the California Highway Patrol. After the rescue, parts of both Highway 37 and Sonoma Boulevard were closed to traffic for about three hours, and Sonoma County hazardous materials crews responded to the fire, though ultimately no contaminants were released. The connector ramp between the two highways opened after more than an eight-hour closure.
Anyone with information leading up to the collision or who witnessed the actual collision to please call the Fairfield CHP Office at (707) 428-2100.
MediaNews Group staff writers contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Jessica A. York at (707) 553-6834 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JYVallejo.
Copyright 2013 - Times-Herald, Vallejo, Calif.