Newton Daily News, Iowa
Jul. 13—Five months after he was pulled from the devastating wreckage of a 40-vehicle pileup on Interstate 80, the recovering Michael Fridley walked through the doors of the Newton Fire Department with his wife, his sister and three of his daughters and shook the hands of the first responders who found him.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Fridley said to Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik.
Fridley was trapped in the driver’s seat of his 2020 Ford Expedition during the pileup this past winter. The barely recognizable car was lodged between two semis near mile marker 163, just west of Newton. By some miracle, no one was killed, but Fridley was still very badly injured.
Many of Fridley’s injuries occurred on the right side of his body, including broken bones in his hands and feet and a shattered knee. He also sustained a number of lacerations and a brain bleed. Fridley spent about 29 days in the hospital recovering and enduring physical therapy, oftentimes using a walker.
“I just didn’t feel right about hobbling in here on a walker,” Fridley said during the surprise visit to the Newton fire station on July 9. “I wanted to come in on my own two feet. I got the little walking stick now, but at least I’m mobile on my own power.”
Fridley doesn’t remember much of what happened that day, perhaps even a few days after that. Wellik said it was probably for the best. In his 30-year career as a firefighter, that I-80 pileup was by far one of the worst he had ever seen. Treaver Willis, a Newton firefighter, said Wellik had to climb the debris to find Fridley.
“You were not visible from where the guys could stand,” Willis said to Fridley. “It took Chief climbing and moving through that stuff to find you. Your car went through a blender and basically disintegrated.”
The Jasper County Sheriff’s Office and Newton Police Department were key to getting Fridley out of his vehicle, too. Although the overturned semi trailers blocked much of the wind and whiteout conditions on scene, Fridley was tightly buried beneath an air bag, part of the car’s roof and the radiator.
Exterior dashcam footage from one of the Iowa State Patrol vehicles showed Fridley’s vehicle was hit at a number of times, some of which were by semis. First responders used hydraulic tools to safely pry Fridley from his car, all the while wrapping him in space/solar blankets to keep him warm.
After 45 minutes or so, Fridley was freed from the twisted metal. The members of the crew who rescued him were awarded the Meritorious Unit Award, which is given to responders who go above and beyond the call of duty. The pileup was certainly one of those “once-in-a-career type of incidents,” Wellik said.
Willis added, “The award’s only been handed out twice within the last year. One was for pulling a person out of a fire and then (this) situation, because it was so complex and took multiple resources for them to get to (him). So it’s just a very unique situation and a very low frequency thing.”
It’s common practice for first responders to search and re-search scenes of an accident — particularly those that are quite large — for survivors or deceased. Wellik said emergency crews want to check and re-check and re-check again to make sure no one is left behind.
“This one was different because you couldn’t even see him in the vehicle,” he said. “It’s part of the duty to make sure you’re taking care of people (and) to do that check. Until you actually put your hands on somebody and confirm they have died, you always have to keep looking.”
Fridley’s wife, Dani, said, “The whole thing is just miraculous.”
Although Fridley does not remember the experience, he was slightly responsive on scene. Wellik recalled talking to the Milo man. When he touched his shoulder, he noticed the man move. Fridley replied to Wellik by giving him a thumbs up. To see him in-person and respond with more than just a thumb was a good feeling.
“It’s wonderful to see people you’ve helped,” Wellik said. “There’s only a handful of times that I can remember where people have come back and wanted to talk to the people that helped them. That’s pretty special to me that they took time out of their schedule to come in and say hi and let us know how he’s doing.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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