Virginia firefighters nearly injured in crash: 'I really thought this is it'

Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-12 07:00:23-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Inside the South Hill Fire Department, a meeting held Monday night wasn’t to discuss business as usual. This time, emotions were high for the department’s 40 volunteer firefighters and many of their families who came together to discuss an incident that nearly ended in tragedy.

“To be able to see and think this is what happens and I’m not going to go home to my four kids and I’m not going to go home to my wife, it’ll take a toll on you,” says Lt. Derek Hazelwood.

Late Friday afternoon, Hazelwood and South Hill Fire Chief Michael Vaughn were on the scene of tractor trailer fire in the south bound lanes of I-85, when a Jeep, traveling at a high rate of speed, crossed into a closed off lane and struck one of four fire engines dispatched to the scene.

“I remember looking and seeing the grill of the vehicle,” says Chief Vaughn, “You could tell it was coming directly at us and we could see it strike the vehicle. At that point, it sent it (the Jeep) back into the highway and it struck a tractor trailer and then sent it back at us and he struck my command vehicle. Then Derek grabbed me under my left arm and my shoulder and pushed us both into the tanker and we were in between the tanker and the vehicle as it nearly missed both of us.”

“The deputy fire chief was actually in the truck that was struck and was blowing the air horn to warn us,” Hazelwood says, “but I never heard it and it was only 50 feet away. I didn’t hear it because it was just like everything paused and as we saw the car coming, I really thought this is it. This is the day.”

This is the second time in a year, that a South Hill fire vehicle has been struck, narrowly missing first responders. The department says damages caused Friday will cost anywhere between $50,000 and $60,000 in repairs. The emotional damages, they say, will last a lifetime.

Despite Move Over Laws, emergency and disabled vehicles continue to be struck by distracted or impaired drivers across the state.

“The thing is, this has always happened, but now it’s intensely getting worse,” says Hazelwood.

At Monday’s meeting, the department discussed additional safety protocols, including purchasing bumper trucks to help absorb the impact of a vehicle. While fire departments often park “blocker” engines in front of working scenes, a bumper truck would protect emergency crews and drivers.

“When they hit the engine, that’s a 68,000-pound truck that is not really going to move,” says Vaughn, “so that crash cushion is designed to take off the load of that vehicle, hopefully giving them a chance to survive as well.”

In July, an extended Move Over Law went into effect to enhance roadway safety and prevent accidents. Now all drivers on Virginia’s highways must switch lanes when passing any vehicle pulled over on the side of the road.

Hazelwood says it’s important that drivers always pay attention behind the wheel of a vehicle and respect Move Over Laws when it is safe to change lanes.

“Those people that are inside fire trucks, police cars, construction vehicles, people that are on the side of the road disabled, that’s someone’s dad, mom, son, brother, or sister. That’s someone’s family,” Hazelwood says.

“The suspect involved in Friday’s incident, fled the scene and was taken into custody several miles from the scene of the crash. Virginia State Police are continuing to investigate the case. Meanwhile, it will take several months to repair the damaged fire engine. In the small community of South Hill, that means less resources for a town that relies heavily on its volunteer fire department.

This is a developing story, so anyone with more information can email to send a tip.

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