Trooper, others lift vehicle off I-57 crash victim
UPDATED 7:09 p.m. Tuesday.
RANTOUL — After more than eight hours on the snowy interstates helping drivers Monday, Illinois State Trooper Brian Scott was growing weary.
But thankfully for a University of Illinois student, the 35-year-old trooper wasn't so tired that he couldn't help lift a 3,000-pound vehicle off the young man, undoubtedly saving his life.
Ethan Asofsky, 21, a sports writer for the Daily Illini, was released Tuesday from Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana where he was treated for injuries he received when a 2007 Dodge Caliber ran over him about 12:35 p.m. Monday.
At that time, Scott was in the ninth hour of what would turn out to be a 12-1/2-hour shift, when he was sent to a spot on Interstate 57 about 5 miles north of Rantoul where several vehicles had gone off the highway.
"Most of the road coming up to that point looked good, so drivers were getting overconfident. Then they would hit this spot and just lose it," said Scott, a trooper for 12 years.
Arriving at the problem area just a mile south of the Ford-Champaign county line, he saw four vehicles in the median and "people wandering around everywhere."
Having started work at 4 a.m., two hours earlier than normal, Scott had already helped about a half-dozen motorists and knew his hands would be full for a while.
Scott also saw a few vehicles on the shoulder that had either slid off the highway or pulled over to help folks. And some of those motorists had violated a cardinal rule of winter storm behavior. They had gotten out of their cars.
Asofsky and two others were outside a car on the far outside right shoulder of the southbound lane. Scott pulled up on the northbound side of I-57, parking his squad on the inside shoulder, close to the median.
"I looked straight across the interstate from my driver's seat and noticed a young man (Asofsky) standing out behind the car who started to walk to get parallel with my car. I saw him looking as if he were wanting to talk to me. He waved as I drove up," said Scott.
Still standing in the snowy ditch, Asoksky had not stepped on to the highway.
"I saw him stop and turn towards me and at that moment I heard tires screeching and I panned my vision to the right and saw a black Dodge passenger car was spinning out clockwise and had turned sideways and was sliding directly at the young man who was standing in the ditch."
"It was kind of a surreal moment. It went in slow motion. I watched as the vehicle just plowed him over, just took him out. All of a sudden, I didn't see him or the vehicle. They had slid down the embankment out of my view," Scott said.
"My first thought was, 'God, did that really happen?'" said the trooper, who's seen plenty of wrecks during his career but not a pedestrian being wiped out in front of him.
"Instinctually, I bailed out of my car and sprinted across the median, obviously checking for southbound traffic so I didn't get run over. I didn't have to break my stride. Once I got to the other side, I could see the car way down in the ditch about 25 feet down in the embankment. It was sitting on top of the young man it had just run over. He was on his back and his legs were sticking out from under the car. From the waist up, he was under the car."
Asofsky's friend had grabbed his legs and was trying to pull him free.
While taking in what he was seeing, Scott was using the radio microphone on his shoulder to tell the dispatcher to send more help.
"It was a bad spot and I had no signal," he said.
Knowing he had no time to waste, the adrenaline-pumping Scott stopped trying to get through on the radio and turned his attention to Asofsky.
A former offensive lineman for the UI football team from 1995 to 1999, the 300-pound, 6 feet 2 inch tall Scott tried to lift the vehicle off the trapped young man.
"I hooked my arm in the front driver's side wheel well and tried to lift the car enough so he could pull his friend out. I wasn't strong enough to get the car up enough to get him out," Scott said.
Hearing Asofsky yelling that he couldn't breathe and seeing his legs kicking, Scott knew he had to get more help and fast.
"I went about halfway up the embankment and made another attempt to get out on my radio and it finally went through," he said.
Out of breath from running and lifting, and fearing that he might not make the connection again, Scott relayed as much information as he could in one transmission.
Later, his colleague Tracy Lillard, who was listening on her radio in her squad car, told him the transmission was garbled and what they heard was that somebody had been hit by a car and that medical help was needed. Other troopers thought it might have been Scott who was hit.
The dispatcher heard enough to send plenty of help. That included the last available ambulance from Rantoul, other District 10 troopers, including detectives who had been pressed into storm patrol, District 21 troopers from the Ashkum post, and Rantoul police.
"Once I knew they heard me and I got the information out, I went back to the car to try to attempt to get him out again," said Scott.
The man who had hit Asofsky, Nicholas Carter, 21, of Chicago, and his girlfriend had remained in the Dodge Caliber. Scott had them get out to lighten the vehicle then pressed Carter and a good Samaritan, whose name he didn't get, into service.
"I just looked at the other two and said, 'On three, we're lifting' and told the friend, 'When we lift, you pull.'"
Scott grabbed the wheel well again and with the assistance of the other two men on the left front quarter of the Caliber, they heaved.
"I felt the car rise and the young man's friend was able to pull him clear of the vehicle and we set it back down," he said, estimating that Asofsky was under the 3,052-pound vehicle 3 to 4 minutes.
With Asofsky bleeding heavily from a cut on his left side and another on his head, Scott ran back across the interstate to get his medical bag. By the time he got back, Carter had helped the shivering, wet, injured Asofsky into the back of the Caliber.
As Scott tended Asofsky's wounds, he continued to talk to him calmly, asking him questions, trying to stave off shock.
"He was answering all my questions. He's a senior at the UI, a journalism major. He had just come back from Austin, covering the NCAA tournament run," Scott said.
Scott said he and a District 21 trooper helped the two paramedics get Asofsky on a backboard and loaded into the ambulance before turning his attention to Carter.
"He was very quiet. I could tell what happened was really bothering him and he was very concerned," Scott said. "He had that thousand-mile stare. I told him, 'I think he's going to be OK. Accidents happen. I want to thank you for helping me lift the car off him. You helped save his life.'"
"You could just see the weight lift off him, it looked to me," said Scott, who said he hated to write Carter a ticket but felt he had to, given that Carter admitted he was going 65 to 70 mph, far too fast for Monday's driving conditions.
Scott said he hadn't gone more than 40 mph on the highways all day and said patchy, snow-covered highways often fool drivers.
"You can't just ramp it back up to highway speed when you have that stuff. It wasn't a good choice on his part, but in my opinion, he redeemed himself," Scott said.
Scott said he checked on Asofsky at Carle late Monday afternoon before heading home to his wife and three sons in Tolono.
"He was upbeat ... talkative. He said, 'I just want to thank you for lifting that car off me. I had 30 to 45 seconds of air left. I'm thankful you got me out when you did.' That was a good feeling."
Recently certified as an accident reconstruction specialist, Scott repeated the warning that troopers proclaim every time there's snowfall: Slow down and stay in your car if you're in an accident.
"Cars are built to withstand impacts. You are not."