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Marine veteran training to be police officer rescues drowning man whose truck flipped over

(Murrayville-Woodson police/Facebook)

Thomas Lair said he had “a lot of angels around him” on March 26.

“It’s a miracle I’m alive,” admitted Lair, who lives in Murrayville, a village in Morgan County, about 12 miles southeast of Jacksonville.

That afternoon, Lair was coming home from his job at Walmart when he failed to negotiate a turn onto Murrayville Road from U.S. 267.

Lair’s 2002 Ford Ranger flipped — the dashcam from Murrayville-Woodson police officer Patrick McKinnon’s patrol vehicle captured it — and the truck and Lair came to rest upside down in a ditch in a pool of water.

McKinnon, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who is still in training as a police officer at the academy in Springfield, sprang into action and was eventually able to break the driver’s side window to extricate Lair, who had lost consciousness and had no pulse for between four to six minutes.

A nurse and others who had stopped by the scene helped revive Lair, who was flown to HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield by helicopter.

Lair, reached late last week, said he felt fine after the ordeal, though some recent errand-running, including buying another truck, had left him tired. Lair insisted he was going back to his job as an asset protection customer host “soon.”

Last Monday, McKinnon was presented with the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Life Saving Award during the Woodson Village Board meeting.

FOP state lodge awards chairman Jerry Lieb, who presented the award, told McKinnon it was “a good start to a career.”

Asked last week about his takeaway from the rescue, McKinnon, who did blast recoveries as a Marine wrecker operator in Afghanistan, was more reflective.

“It can happen in a split second,” McKinnon said. “Life is really fragile. Like a wine glass in a hurricane.”

Thomas Lair had no reason to believe his trip home from Jacksonville the afternoon of Mar. 26 would be any different from any of the other thousands of times he had driven that stretch of highway.

Lair’s family had moved to Jacksonville from Minnesota in 1970. Through friends, Lair started “hanging around” Murrayville in the mid to late 1970s.

Lair and his wife, Judy, got married in Jacksonville in 1981, then moved to Roodhouse in Greene County in 1982, before landing in Murrayville in 1991.

Lair, ironically, drove for several trucking firms for nearly 25 years — his father was also a trucker — before having to give it up for health reasons in 2019.

His driving record?

“Spotless,” assured Lair. “No tickets. No wrecks. No CSA (compliance, safety and accountability) points. Nothing.”

As Lair left Walmart that day, he told a co-worker, Tori, to be careful going home, mindful of the recent rain.

“He said, ‘You be careful going home. Don’t let anything happen to you,'” Lair recalled his co-worker telling him.

Murrayville-Woodson police chief Derek Suttles admitted that part of 267, sometimes called Old 67, has “a tricky little curve. When it’s raining, it’s a hydroplane nightmare.”

The road also has gravel shoulders, and any little bit of gravel that gets kicked up on it can make for a slick surface, Suttles said.

“We had some pretty good rains the day or two before,” noted Suttles, who grew up on a farm south of Murrayville and was a star basketball player at Jacksonville High School and MacMurray College. “The ditches were fairly full. They were fairly full several days later after I went by there.

“The water stands there pretty good. It’s right on the edge of a field, so there’s a lot of field run-off.”

McKinnon was about 25 yards away from the intersection when Lair’s truck flipped. Lair acknowledged seeing McKinnon’s squad car behind another truck “before it went black.”

Patrick McKinnon grew up in Murrayville. His father, also Patrick McKinnon, who died in 2018, was a mechanic and a general contractor and served as a police officer for a short time in Virginia.

Officer McKinnon served five years in the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines. It was an infantry battalion, but it did armed mounted patrols as well, McKinnon said.

The unit, said McKinnon, who served one tour in Afghanistan in 2011-12 before he was injured, did rollover drills “all the time.”

Whenever convoys and other vehicles would hit IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and roadside bombs, McKinnon and other Marines would go out and recover them.

When Lair’s truck flipped in front of him, McKinnon activated his police lights. That action, Suttles explained, kicked the dashcam back 30 seconds, so it caught the truck flipping.

“You would never look down in that ditch,” McKinnon said, “and think somebody would drown there, but he did.”

As McKinnon reached the truck, he saw Lair trying to cut the seat belt with a pocket knife. Lair’s body weight prevented the buckle from releasing, and the impact had tightened the belt where he couldn’t move it all, McKinnon explained. Lair was trapped to the seat with water from the collapsed cab coming over his head and shoulders.

McKinnon said he had kicked in doors in training in the Marine Corps. Without a tool, “I about broke my foot kicking that window in, and it didn’t do anything,” he recalled.

McKinnon was looking through the window at Lair, yelling for him to cut the seatbelt.

“He’s halfway through the belt, and he’s completely submerged, and then he starts shaking, and then he goes limp,” McKinnon said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God.'”

A passer-by eventually gave McKinnon a crowbar, and he shattered the window with it. McKinnon crawled in the window and began pulling Lair out of the truck.

At that point, Suttles said, other passers-by had stopped to assist McKinnon in pulling Lair out of the vehicle.

“By that time, he had been drowned for five minutes,” McKinnon said. “He was purple.”

A nurse along with the mother of a Murrayville volunteer firefighter, Ellen Kitselman, performed CPR and brought Lair back.

“I just held his hand,” McKinnon said of the scene.

Before he was loaded in the medivac, Lair said he locked eyes with the volunteer firefighter, Cody Kitselman, who is also his neighbor.

“When they loaded me into the chopper, he was the last person I knew I had seen,” Lair said. “At that time, he told me I would be all right.”

The first person Lair ran into after being released from St. John’s on April 1 was Officer McKinnon.

“He said, ‘Is that really you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, in the flesh,'” Lair said with a laugh. “I never seen a guy light up and a glow as bright as him.”

McKinnon said he delicately walked Lair through some of the events.

“I imagine he’s dealing with that in his own way,” McKinnon said. “That’s a lot to process.”

In presenting the FOP award to McKinnon, Lieb noted his “quick and decisive actions” helped save Lair.

“His efforts embody the true meaning of the police motto, ‘to protect and serve,'” Lieb told the gathering.

Lair said he has always been a supporter of police officers, but now more than ever.

“It’s the hand of God (at work),” Lair said of his fate. “No brain damage. No bones broken. Maybe some slight issues trying to deal with all of this, the overwhelmingness of all this swirling around.

“I’m grateful and humbled to everybody who took part in my rescue, and I’m eternally grateful to them because they didn’t have to stop.

“I can’t go through life without saying thank you to these people.”

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