Location: Murray, Kentucky
Date: April 14, 1992
On the morning of April 14, 1992, thirty-nine-year-old Herbert Frederick of Murray, Kentucky, was rushing to get to class on time. Herb was less than three weeks away from achieving his dream of graduating college, but this morning he was running late. Being a father, holding down a full-time job, and going to college made it tough to stay on schedule each day.
Herb was driving on a busy two-lane highway, stuck behind four other cars as he rushed to the nearby university. He thought he saw his chance to pass the cars ahead of him. He pulled into the oncoming lane, but heading directly toward him was a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction. Driver Steve Ernstberger saw Herb coming and tried to swerve off the road. Herb narrowly missed hitting Ernstberger, but he lost control. His car sailed off the road, became airborne, clipped a utility pole, and crashed into a tree.
Ted Potts heard the crash from inside his house and called 911. Then he ran outside to help. "That old boy doesn't have a chance," Potts thought to himself when he saw the mess Herb was in. The utility pole had fallen to the ground, and its power lines sagged across the length of Herb's car, hanging precariously three to four feet above the car and the road. Nearby, the lines had become tangled in a tree. With each power surge, sparks flew, the tree limbs burned, and the lines dropped a little farther toward the roof of the car. Ernstberger and other motorists stopped to help, but fear of electrocution kept everyone away from Herb, who was slumped unconscious at the wheel.
Rescue units from the Murray Fire Department, led by firefighter/EMT Brad Haugh, arrived on the scene, followed by Murray-Calloway County Hospital Ambulance Service with paramedic Owen Moore and EMT Kenny Collins. Haugh quickly learned that the firefighters had a bigger problem than anticipated. Several hundred feet away, a trailer house had caught fire as a result of the downed power lines. Haugh told his men not to go near the trailer if there was a risk of electrocution.
Haugh wondered how he and his men were going to rescue Herb without risking their own lives. His training had taught him never to approach an area with live power lines. "You just don't run into a scene where there's power lines involved." says Haugh. "You just do not do it. Never." Paramedic Moore was also anxious about approaching Herb's car, but he felt he had no choice. "Well, we can't just let him die," he said to Haugh.
Moore went to his truck to get some equipment. That's when he noticed a fire burning under Herb's car. If rescuers were going to act, it would have to be this second. Moore, Collins, and Haugh hurried to the car and pulled Herb out as best they could, knowing that if they moved him the wrong way, they could paralyze him or kill him. But speed was of the essence to prevent all of them from being electrocuted. The men slipped a C-collar around Herb's neck and slid him onto a backboard to protect his spine. By the time they reached the ambulance, the power lines had fallen, and the car was completely engulfed in flames.
Herb was admitted to Lourdes Hospital where he underwent reconstructive surgery to repair his shattered right leg. He also began the road to recovery from a severe head injury that caused permanent loss of sight in one eye. His wife, Paula, was preparing herself for her husband's uncertain future, but Herb made a remarkable recovery. Three weeks after his accident, he was transferred to a rehabilitation center.
"This is an amazing recovery," says Herb's neurologist, Dr. John Colby. "Herb's a lucky guy. He's coming back further than anybody ever thought he would. Had his rescuers waited until everything was just right, Herb might not be around right now." Dr. Colby attributes Herb's speedy recovery to his determination and positive attitiude, and to the support he received from Paula and his family.
Paula also learned a lesson the hard way. "After the accident, I just wanted to follow people and say, life's too short," says Paula. "You don't need to get there so fast. Come look at my husband. See what happened to him." One year later, Herb received his college degree. "I guess I'm a cat with nine lives," he says.