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News | Jan. 9, 2019

“I’ve got to stop and help these people.”—DIA officer saves crash victims

By Chasen Thoennes, DIA Public Affairs

On the morning of Oct. 5, 2018, DIA member Air Force SSgt Donald Thomas, along with his wife and four children, pulled out of the driveway of a family member’s house near Okemah, Oklahoma. Thomas, a member of the Chief Information Officer team at U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, had just finished a short TDY to Tinker Air Force Base, and was taking a couple days of leave before returning to the office.

With four children, Thomas openly admits his family is never on time. But for whatever reason, everyone piled into the car 15 minutes ahead of schedule that day.

A few miles into their drive along I-40 west, Thomas saw a passenger van recoil from impact with the back of a dump truck, crushing the front end. Inside were five Department of Energy employees returning to Amarillo, Texas after training at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, I’ve got to stop and help these people’,” said Thomas. “I pulled my car over, ran across the highway and was the first one there … I don’t know how to describe it, it was complete chaos.”

Thomas got to the van just seconds after the accident to find it completely smashed in, windows broken and passengers bloodied and injured, with smoke coming out of the engine compartment. He rushed over to the driver-side door where the driver was pinned by the steering column. The van quickly began to fill with smoke and fire started under the hood. Thomas knew he had very little time to get everyone out so he used his pocketknife to cut the driver’s seatbelt and yelled for two bystanders to pull the driver away from the vehicle.

Thomas then moved to the other side of the van, where one passenger had managed to open the side door and was attempting to pull others out despite a broken hip and pelvis. Upon seeing Thomas, the passenger screamed that another person needed immediate medical help.

“I look up and there’s this guy that’s just draped out of the side of the van, his entire face is covered in blood and he’s unconscious, so I grab him under the shoulders and I drag him over to the side of the road. I clear his airway, align his neck for breathing and get the blood out of his nose,” Thomas explained. “I let [the other passenger] know he’s breathing, yell for me if something changes … and I go back to the van to see if I can help with anybody else.”

Smoke has now completely engulfed the van. The front seat passenger is moving trying to get himself out, so Thomas’ priority becomes the passenger sitting on the floor behind the driver seat — he is conscious but not moving, with heavily labored breathing and a badly bloodied face.

“I climb back in to the van, throwing tactical bags onto the highway trying to get to him. I grab just under his knees and I pull him towards me, almost cradling him, and get him to where I can get under his arms and drag him out, get him over by his friend on the side of the road,” Thomas stated.

While moving the passenger away from the van, Thomas instinctively ran through a mental checklist of steps needed for someone with critical injuries. He knew he couldn’t lay the individual’s head directly down on the pavement, so Thomas pulled the man’s legs up, placed him in a stable position and cleared his airways. While attending to the man he just pulled from the van, Thomas heard the individual in the front passenger seat scream, “It’s on fire!” Thomas turned around to see fire coming through the dashboard, up on the man’s legs, and dashed back to the van.

“I couldn’t get his door open so I tried smashing the window with the butt of my knife, but I couldn’t get that to happen. So, I climb in through the back of the van to, between his seat and where the seat belt is, and push on the dashboard to where he can get his legs free. He pulled his legs up and managed to push off the door,” said Thomas.

However, the passenger sustained two broken arms and other injuries and was unable to get out of the van on his own. Despite outweighing Thomas by 50-60 pounds, Thomas lugged the man out of the van as the fire continued to grow.

”He rolled into the center between the seats and I went chest to chest with him, and gripped him under his arms to pull him out after I managed to help him get his feet over the headrest,” said Thomas. The engine bay was completely on fire and the van was full of smoke at this point.”

After moving the passenger to the side of the road with the others, Thomas looked back to see the driver — whom he thought was already out, still in the fiery van. He then bolted down the highway yelling for a fire extinguisher, getting one from a truck driver in the traffic backlog. When Thomas returned to the van, the driver was out of the vehicle, finally freed by the passenger with the broken hip — who somehow was able to hobble back to the van —  and an Army Reservist who had just arrived on scene.

“[The other passenger and reservist] managed to get the driver out right as I was coming back, and the entire van was up in flames, 10-15 feet over the van, coming out the top. Everywhere, just black smoke rolling,” Thomas said.

Less than two minutes elapsed from the time Thomas saw the accident to when all the passengers were out on the ground and flames fully engulfed the van.

With all the passengers out, Thomas began triaging and stabilizing injuries. However, the extreme heat of the fire set off ammunition rounds packed in the tactical bags inside the van, forcing Thomas to move the crash victims farther away to safety. Once a safe distance away, Thomas continued rendering first aid until help arrived.

“It was probably the scariest moment of my life when I realized that I’m the person responsible for whatever is happening at this moment … it felt like that until the medics took over,” Thomas said, describing the pressure he felt while he was the only one on scene providing aid.

The five individuals in the van were part of a larger DOE convoy, including a trauma team about a mile behind at the time of the accident. Realizing something was wrong, the team drove on the median and arrived on the scene to see Thomas administering first aid to their colleagues.

Thomas provided the trauma team a thorough run-down of injuries and priorities, and continued to assist with triage and medical care, including inserting chest decompressions and vents, and inserting IV lines. Nearly 20 minutes passed before police and emergency medical technicians arrived.

“It’s great that I got them out, but had their trauma team not been with them, we would have lost, I think, all but one of the guys that day,” stated Thomas.

Despite the efforts of Thomas and DOE trauma team, one passenger passed away on scene. However, the Oklahoma State Troopers’ investigation stated Thomas’ “quick actions and willingness to stop and render aid likely resulted in four lives being saved. He voluntarily put himself in harm’s way so that others could live — the definition of a hero.”

Thomas noted it was a bit of luck that he was there at the right time. “I look back, and had I not been sent on that TDY, I would have been driving down [from Omaha] when all that happened, or if we had taken longer getting ready in the morning — I mean, 30 seconds in either direction it would have been a completely different story for those guys.”

Thomas credits his military training with providing him the skills that enabled him to make a difference that day.

“In the military, you have all your basic medical knowledge; you know how to handle instances like that. You just kind of fall into the motions and go through everything that’s supposed to happen. I get there and I think, ‘Okay, these people need help, I’m going to help them.’ It doesn’t matter who, what, when, where or why, I’m the person here at the moment, I’m going to do what I can."