During the early evening of Aug. 15, Sgt. Roger Williams had left Fort McCoy to go back to his hotel in Sparta, Wis., after wrapping up a day of training at the installation. Little did he know his drive back to the hotel would play a role in saving the lives of a grandfather and his two granddaughters.
Just after 6 p.m., the serpentine belt on Williams’ “fairly new” car broke as he was just getting into Sparta after traveling about 8 miles from the post.
“My car started acting up, then my battery light came on, and the car started overheating,” said Williams, who serves in Milwaukee with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 334th Regiment, 95th Training Division. “It was bad, so I pulled into the Sparta Floral parking lot, which is near a four-way stop.”
Realizing he had something seriously wrong with his car, Williams contacted Sgt. 1st Class Justin McCarthy with the 108th Training Command at Charlotte, N.C., who was still back at Fort McCoy. “I’m not a car guy, so I gave him a call to see if he could help,” Williams said.
McCarthy immediately said he’d be over to help Williams. When McCarthy left Fort McCoy, he also had other Soldiers accompanying him in following vehicles. These Soldiers were: Master Sgt. Ryan Cameron with U.S. Army Reserve Command (USARC) Headquarters of Fort Bragg, N.C.; Sgt. 1st Class Eric Juhl with Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 415th Infantry Regiment of Helena, Mont.; and Sgt. Daniel McElroy with 3rd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 320th Regiment, 95th Training Division at Fort Belvoir, Va.
All of the Soldiers are current or prior drill instructors who were at Fort McCoy from July to August to support Best Warrior and Drill Sergeant of the Year preparatory training for candidates entering U.S. Army-level competitions. Williams said he was just happy to see his fellow Soldiers arrive to help him figure out how to fix his car.
A ‘loud screeching’
The hood was up on Williams’ car, and McCarthy and the others figured out that the problem was a broken serpentine belt.
“I just got on to my phone to see where I could locally find a serpentine belt for my car, and out of nowhere, we hear this loud screeching noise,” Williams said.
The screeching that Williams and the other Soldiers heard around 6:45 p.m. was the sound of a 2007 Pontiac Torrent driven by 63-year-old David R. Turner of Tomah, Wis., jumping a median. It soared through the air into a utility pole directly across the road from where the Soldiers were working on Williams’ car.
“We watched it happen like it was in slow motion,” McElroy said. “From the car jumping the median to crashing into the pole and catching on fire.”
“When that vehicle hit that pole, there was a big explosion with a transformer blowing at the same time,” McCarthy said. “The only thing holding that pole up was the lines above. The utility pole was completely snapped off its base.”
When Williams, McCarthy, McElroy, Juhl, and Cameron saw what was happening, none of them hesitated a second to respond.
“I was already on my phone, so I called 911,” Williams said. “Everyone else was already by the vehicle trying to get to the occupants inside.”
Juhl said there was a lot of smoke, and it was hard to see inside the car.
“We focused on the driver first because we just expected a driver,” Juhl said. “All of the airbags were deployed, and with all the smoke … you really couldn’t see too far into the vehicle. So as we started working on the driver side, (three of us) broke the window and got the door bent down.”
After breaking the window, McCarthy said the smoke in the car started clearing out. Turner was partially awake and asked “how are the girls?”
In the back seat were Turner’s two granddaughters — 4-year-old London and 2-year-old Delilah.
Two of the Soldiers heard the girls speak, and they were able to focus on the girls in the back, Juhl said. They were able to quickly get the girls out.
“They were asking how (their grandfather) was doing right away,” McElroy said. “When we looked in the back of the car, we were able to see the two car seats. One was rear facing and the other was forward facing.”
The girls were taken out of the car first, and Turner was taken out of the vehicle soon thereafter.
“I think the whole thing from the crash ending to getting everyone out of the car took less than two minutes,” Williams said. “We had most everything under control before the first responders arrived just minutes after the crash.”
What are the chances?
Williams said the chance of his car breaking down at that spot at that time, and having that many of his fellow Soldiers on the scene to help with the car fix was slim.
“A serpentine belt should never break on a car with just 16,000 miles,” Williams said, referring to his 2018 model car. “How do you explain how I had to pull in that very parking lot, which is just feet away from where that accident took place? For some reason, we were meant to be there.”
“It really was a case of being at the right place at the right time,” McCarthy said. “It was a very unfortunate accident that occurred, but you can’t think of having a more perfect set of people out there to actually respond to the scene other than regular first responders. The very people who are training people to be the best warriors in the Army are the people who showed up and used their well-rounded expertise to assist this family.”
Juhl said, “I was definitely glad to have been there. We have all this wealth of training, and I’m glad it served a good purpose.”
“We were all there trying to figure out how to get a serpentine belt off a car, but instead we were able to help a family,” McElroy said. “We never thought about where to go or what to do. We just went into action without thinking about it.”
A grateful grandfather
Turner and his granddaughters are all fine with no serious injuries from the accident. Local reports show Turner passed out while driving the car, which was on cruise control, because of a medical issue.
Four of the five Soldiers met with Turner in Tomah on Aug. 23 after the accident to see how he was doing and to meet with local media.
“I remember you guys were talking to me and trying to calm me down,” Turner said to the Soldiers at their meeting. “I remember you taking me out of the vehicle. … You are my guardian angels … all of you.
“I don’t really know what else to say other than thank you,” he said.