Volunteer crew and career firefighters worked together on interstate to free toddler trapped under tractor-trailer

When they arrived on scene of another crash on I-275, the volunteer firefighters from Station 24 and the career firefighters of Station 14 could not see the baby. They were told the child was still in the car and they could occasionally hear crying, but the sounds were coming from an unlikely and terrifying location: a space in the crumpled sedan just below the front right tire of a semi-truck.

A flat tire leads to horror

In the summer of '84, a South Florida family driving north in the pre-dawn hours one Friday on a long weekend trip had pulled off the interstate because of a flat tire. Their car was full of important getaway items like a sturdy ice chest and an early version of a modern car seat.

Once outside the vehicle to attend to the flat, the two parents watched in horror as an 18-wheeler barreled into the back of their Chevy sedan. Their 17-month-old was still in the vehicle.

The car was shoved about 86 yards along I-275 north of the Nebraska Avenue overpass. The wreckage pushed through a barbed wire fence and into a ditch. The cab of the truck came to rest on the roof of the sedan only inches away from the child's head.

The impact of the crash had wedged the toddler in her car seat between the family's hard cooler and the front seat of the car. The weight of the truck was precariously balancing above her.

Article close up from Tampa Tribune (viewed on microfilm at Hillsborough's John F. Germany Library)
Article close up from Tampa Tribune (viewed on microfilm at Hillsborough's John F. Germany Library)

Tough choices and extra help

Rescue crews faced a tough conundrum: Any attempt to get to the little victim would involve jeopardizing the structural integrity of the car. Cutting the car to get her out could cause the truck to crush further down and injure or kill the child. They also couldn't remove things from the car like the ice chest, because they were supporting the weight of the truck.

The only way to save her was to get the truck off the car first, and it would have to be done carefully.

The crew at the scene called Pasco Fire Rescue for support because their neighbors to the north had airbags to inflate under the truck to ease the pressure bearing down above the child's head. The Florida Highway Patrol called a towing service seeking the largest wrecker they could get.

As the crew secured the truck to the wrecker and arranged the airbags for inflation, the rescue crew also worked to stabilize the toddler.

Beth Nevel, assistant chief of the Lutz Volunteer Fire Department at the time, was trying to stabilize the child's broken femur so that the jostling of getting her out of the car didn't do permanent nerve damage. She crawled underneath the sedan and reached up to hold the child's leg to keep herself out of the way as the crew carefully cut into the metal.

Singing to ease the tension

From the front, Paramedic Supervisor Pete Bihorel from Station 14 climbed through the busted windshield of the car to hold the toddler's attention during the rescue.

"Her movement was limited, and when she tried to move she got very frustrated," Bihorel told The Tampa Tribune that day. "I was singing that song 'It's a Small World' to her, and apparently she liked it. It kept me occupied, too, because I didn't want to think about (the truck) above us."

Inch by painstaking inch

With the wrecker, the airbags, and extrication equipment, the team moved the truck one inch at a time. With precious little room for error, each move had the potential for a disastrous shift that could hurt the child.

Inch by inch, the coordinated teams removed the truck from above her and rescued the toddler from the crushed car. She was taken to Tampa General Hospital suffering from the broken leg and some cuts on her face. She survived one of the most perilous situations a person can possibly face: wedged in a car with a tractor only inches above your head.

No way to prepare for this scenario

At the time, Chris Frey was the Lutz Fire Volunteer captain. "There was no way to stage the scene in a junkyard for practice," he says now. The scenario of a tractor-trailer's wheel balancing all its weight only inches from a child in a car seat was almost too unlikely to even dream up.

There were multiple agencies in the public and private sectors working together that day in the dark. Frey says the teams work seamlessly, even though they almost never work together. Everyone was focused on the young victim.

Nearing the 40th anniversary of the rescue, Frey and Nevel agree the lesson to learn is that if you pull off the roadway for any reason, motorists should always get all occupants out of the car and far from the roadway until help arrives.

Image Caption: The cover of the Aug. 25, 1984 Tampa Tribune (viewed on microfilm at Hillsborough's John F. Germany Library) includes a cover story about the baby stuck under the truck's tire.
Last Modified: 4/18/2024, 12:43:34 PM

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