Tukwila firefighter tossed 12 feet: Move over for emergency lights on freeways

"I'd run into a burning building 10 times over one call on the freeway," Tukwila firefighter Greg Hansen said at a press conference Thursday at Tukwila's main fire station in talking about the risks emergency workers face on scene at a freeway accident.

Tukwila firefighter Greg Hansen and his wife Mary Prentice

Tukwila firefighter Greg Hansen doesn’t reminder flying 12 feet through the air and landing on the fogline of Interstate 5.

He does remember fellow firefighters dragging him to safety, blood running from his nose.

Hansen has a new Thanksgiving day and a message for anyone who drives on a freeway: when you see emergency lights of any color, slow down and MOVE OVER.

“I’d run into a burning building 10 times over one call on the freeway,” Hansen said at a press conference Thursday at Tukwila’s main fire station in talking about the risks emergency workers face on scene at a freeway accident.

Representatives of the Washington State Patrol and the Washington State Department of Transportation joined with the Tukwila Fire Department to talk about the need to obey the state’s move-over law adopted in 2007.

“Our message today is about safety of our responders on our highways,” said Tukwila Battalion Chief Marty Grisham, and not just Tukwila’s.

Hansen was driving fire Engine 51 back to the station the evening of Nov. 29 on Macadam Road, after responding with his two fellow firefighters to another call farther north on I-5.

Snow had fallen earlier in the day for the first time this fall; the roads were icy and the state patrol – and fire crews – were responding to numerous calls on the freeways.

At about 6 p.m. Hansen saw a small white truck spin out and come to rest in a median on northbound I-5. He notified his captain and headed back to the freeway.

He parked in the HOV lane of the onramp from Interstate 405 just ahead of the pickup that had come to rest perpendicular to traffic. He did everything “humanely” possible to protect the fire crew and other motorists.

Closest to the truck, he got out first and walked toward the truck driver’s door. The accident didn’t seem serious, but he needed to check on the man inside. Seconds later, maybe a foot away from the door, he heard a big boom and then nothing.

A red Mustang collided with the pickup truck with such force that Hansen was thrown 7 or 8 feet into the air and about 12 feet toward the freeway. The truck’s driver was injured; no one was hurt in the sedan.

“The next thing I remember is I am being drug off the road, or drug somewhere, in the most pain I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “I can remember blood just pouring out of my nose.”

He was treated at Haborview Medical Center and released. No bones were broken, which he attributes to the padding in his bunker pants – and some “natural” padding, which drew a laugh.

His voice wavering, Hansen says he’s calling Nov. 29 his new Thanksgiving. There were thousands of other outcomes, each one worse, he said, not the least of which is that 15 seconds later his whole crew would have been standing with him, suffering the same fate.

“I don’t know if I could live with that,” he said.

Trooper Chris Webb, a spokesman for the state patrol, said the driver of the Mustang would receive a citation if found at fault in the collision, which is standard patrol policy. The investigation is continuing.

The move-over law basically requires that drivers are supposed to give emergency workers – police, fire, aid, transportation department and two trucks – 200 feet of emergency space, Webb explained. Vehicles must move away from emergency vehicles – not get closer, which Webb has seen repeatedly.

The law is hard to enforce because the trooper is investigating an accident or issuing a citation and can’t pursue an offender, he said.

In the 10 days prior to the Nov. 29 accident, three state patrol cars had been hit while responding to a call, he said.

“This is a serious issue,” he said. “Greg is going to be testament to how personal it can get when it goes beyond cars and into people.”

The responders acknowledged that slowing or stopping because of accident can be frustrating.

“When we are out there, we are not trying to screw up your commute. Honest,” Hansen said.

Hansen’s wife Mary Prentice was at home in Shelton on the Olympic Peninsula when she got the “nerve-wracking” call that her husband was injured on a call and was being transported to Harborview.

“Harborview is the place you want to be when something is really wrong,” she said. “When I knew he was being taken to Harborview, I knew something was really wrong.”

A Tukwila firefighter drove to Shelton to bring her to Seattle; he “kept me calm until I could see that Greg was OK,” she said.

She has a message, too, about moving over.

“If you’re going to get in your vehicle, get in your vehicle and drive. That’s what you’re in there to do. Pay attention. Observe. See what’s happening. Slow down and move over.”

DRIVING SAFETY TIPS

At the press conference Tukwila Police Officer Zack Anderson offered the following tips to keep safe in winter driving:

• Plan ahead, if you know it’s going to be icy, give yourself a few extra minutes to scrap off your windshield and make sure your car is entirely defrosted, not just your windshield.

• Short daylight hours mean less visibility for pedestrians and emergency workers. Responders try to wear emergency vests, high-reflective vests on the roads. If you like to jog or walk your dog, it’s important that you try to wear reflective clothes as well.

• Minimize distractions: no texting, stay focused on your driving when you have children in the car, no dogs on your lap when driving.

• Stay alert: Leave that extra following distance, don’t drive too fast for conditions.

• If you see an emergency vehicle coming from behind, pull over to the right when it’s safe to do so. Don’t stop immediately in the middle of the roadway.

• Avoid the urge to looky lou, which can result in more collisions.

“Have faith that we are giving the situation all the attention and all the care that it deserves and that we are going to do our jobs to try to keep everyone safe. Please don’t make situation any worse by getting into an accident of your own,” he said.

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