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Of Highway Knights

Owner-operator saves motorists in dangerous South Dakota ground blizzard

“I’ve been doing this a long time, 30 years,” says owner-operator John Crozman of his long trucking career, for the past two years leased to Albertville, Minn.-based Long Haul Trucking.

Truckers News Senior Editor Todd Dills is the author of a novel, Sons of the Rapture, and blogs daily at www.overdriveonline.com/channel19. Write him at [email protected] or http://twitter.com/channel19todd.

Like so many haulers, he’s seen his fair share of on-highway rescue action. “It’s not a problem. You come upon accidents and try to maybe help somebody out. I think all truckers have been in this situation. We’ve all been there and done that.” Living and operating often in the upper Midwest, he says, “I’ve helped folks before from a blizzard.”

But the night of Feb. 3 would turn out differently. Crozman was on something of a routine haul in his 2009 Freightliner Cascadia northbound on I-29 in South Dakota when he neared the top of a ridge north of Summit Crozman calls “the Bermuda Triangle of South Dakota” when it comes to weather. “You never know what the weather will do.”

This particular evening, winds gusts of an estimated 50 mph blew up drifts of recent dry, heavy snow that had fallen throughout the region, creating dangerous ground blizzard conditions. Crozman could see well enough from the height of his Cascadia, but prudence with regard to the travelers around him led him to pull off at what he describes as a ramp that climbs to a rest and refuge area “well off the interstate,” at exit 213.

Crozman, seeing large snowdrifts blocking some sections of the ramp, as well as at least one other vehicle parked there, stopped to wait out the worst of the storm. As he sat, between “breaks in the snow blowing,” he says, “I noticed another car out there” and thought he could see a light intermittently through the vehicle’s windows.

Thomas and Mary Lynne Fischer had been trapped in the car for more than four hours. The two retired teachers, residents of Winnipeg, Manitoba, were on their way back north from a cycling vacation in Arizona when they were caught in the whiteout conditions. Given the high winds and wind chill estimates in the neighborhood of -60 F, snow had begun plugging the vehicle’s air filter, and the two were huddled around a small candle, a sleeping bag draped across them, for what little warmth it provided.

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Soon enough, their savior would arrive. “They were sure glad to see me,” says Crozman. The owner-operator, in a snow suit and fighting against the wind gusts and snow drifts packed hard as concrete, managed to get the Fischers to his Cascadia, where they sat for a time warming up before he noticed the blowing snow impacting his own air filtration systems and decided to move back southbound to the Coffee Cup Truckstop in Summit. There, the three warmed up indoors and talked before settling in for the night in each of the Cascadia’s double bunks.

Crozman “didn’t tell anybody about that for a day. The next day I didn’t even think about it” but to tell his wife he’d had a couple roommates from Canada.

But as several days went by and he returned home to Blackhawk, S.D., after his runs, a bombshell awaited.

“We are writing to advise you of a situation of heroic proportions that occurred on the evening of February 3rd, 2011,” the Fischers had posted to John Daniels, CEO of Long Haul Trucking. In the letter, they detailed the entire episode. “We have always had the utmost respect for those individuals involved in the trucking industry,” they wrote, “and now we owe our lives to one of them. John is a humble man who did not want us to make a fuss over him, however, we know that we must relay this information and have him receive the recognition he deserves. John is a fine man — he is our hero, and we will never forget what he did for us on that frigid night on I-29. John speaks very highly of the company he represents and of the individuals with whom he works.”

Crozman was the subject of a feature in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. A longtime member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Crozman appeared then on the organization’s radio show. As other news got out, positive repercussions continued. “When I got home the other day,” he told me, two weeks after the event, “I had a card in the mail from a doctor in Minneapolis. He sent me a check for $50 to take my wife out to eat” as thank-you for looking out for others.

“So many times we hear the negative side of the industry,” says Long Haul’s safety director, Mark Theis. “We had to make sure that [Crozman’s] story was told. Drivers are often looked at by the public as an 80,000-lb. monster with a license to kill. But there are largely good people in this industry all over, and we’re proud to have the ones that are representing them out there.”

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