Into the Inferno

| April 07, 2005

Freddie Dean of Greenville, Ohio, was rolling along with the weekday morning commuter traffic on Interstate 75 in Georgia, just outside of Chattanooga, Tenn.

When Dean came up over a hilltop, he saw an unbelievable sight that would make this morning like no other he had ever experienced.

A dense fog was rolling in, and visibility was dropping quickly. Brake lights began to snap on, and Dean, who has more than 32 years of driving experience, instinctively slowed down while other cars sped past him on the
two-lane interstate.

“I always look ahead for a way out of a situation,” said Dean, who immediately knew this situation was extremely dangerous and that he’d have to quickly maneuver his rig. Dean was in the right-hand lane when he saw two UPS doubles in the left-hand lane. He was sure they were going to crash and hit him. He managed to pull his rig toward the berm. He was far enough away from the road to avoid getting hit from behind.

“By the time I could get stopped, the fog had completely covered us up,” said Dean, noting that visibility was only 20 to 30 feet. “It was like driving in a ‘white out,’ a heavy snowstorm.”

Dean yelled a warning on his CB radio to stop other truckers behind him from joining what was fast becoming an enormous pileup as one vehicle slammed into another. Later some truckers thanked him for his warning, which most likely prevented further accidents.

Once his rig was secure, Dean went into the thick blanket of fog to check the two UPS drivers. They had crashed into each other as Dean had feared. The drivers appeared to be OK, so he made his way to the center of the highway where a car that had been badly crushed. He managed to help a woman from the wreckage, but as he walked away, his heart dropped. Dean spotted a propane tanker there in the devastation, sitting among several trucks. And he already knew that directly in front of his rig sat a fully loaded gasoline truck.

Suddenly, he noticed a car on fire. Dean grabbed the hood, pulled it up, and extinguished the blaze. “The last thing we needed was a fire in that area,” he said.

Dean kept looking for people injured in the massive pileup. He went to the aid of a husband and wife trapped in their truck, helping get them out through the passenger window and then calming them down. Then, concerned about venturing too far and not being able to find his way back, all Dean could do was return to his rig and wait for the fog to lift.

“It took two hours before we could see 50 feet ahead of us,” Dean said, adding that traffic didn’t move for about another 10 hours after that.

“When the fog started rising up and we started looking around, we said, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to get out of here?’” A sea of vehicles filled the interstate. According to news reports, the fog had caused a 125-car pileup, resulting in five deaths and 39 injuries. Dean realized how fortunate he was to be alive and how fortunate everybody in the pileup had been that there had been no explosions.

“You can’t worry about it afterwards, so you keep going and don’t look back,” he said. But he admits, “Later that afternoon when I was drinking my glass of tea, I was shaking thinking about it.”

Dean will be retiring soon and he said this incident reassured him that it was time.

Dean received a Highway Angel lapel pin, certificate, and patch for his efforts at the scene of the accident. Heartland Express also received a certificate for acknowledging a Highway Angel in their midst.

Since its inception in August 1997, the Highway Angel program has recognized hundreds of drivers for the unusual kindness, courtesy, and courage they have shown others while on the job. TCA has received letters and emails from people across the country nominating truck drivers for the program.

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