Todd Taylor was on his way to work as a delivery truck driver Saturday night when he rounded a corner on Route 322 and saw someone standing in the middle of the darkened highway frantically waving a flashlight.
Behind that person, in the left lane against a concrete jersey barrier, Taylor saw a mangled pickup truck with a camper locked into a smashed pickup truck, all blanketed in smoke.
His instincts as a former volunteer firefighter in Lewistown kicked in. He parked his car in the left traffic lane, flipped on his hazard lights to try to prevent other people from driving into the crash scene, and leapt into action.
Taylor was among a dozen or more passers-by, including professional race car driver Kasey Kahne, who pulled over to help after the 10:38 p.m. crash Saturday about three-quarters of a mile west of Mountain Road in Middle Paxton Township.
A wrong-way driver had traveled at least six miles on Route 322 against opposing traffic before hitting the truck and camper head-on, according to witnesses.
The couple with the camper was heading home from the racetrack at Port Royal Speedway when they were surprised by headlights in their lane. Kahne also was leaving the track after competing there and was among the first people to stop at the crash in the eastbound lanes.
Kahne couldn’t be reached for comment, but Taylor said he heard a bystander calling for help shortly after he got out of his vehicle. They shouted that one of the pickup trucks was on fire and the unconscious driver was trapped inside the locked vehicle.
Someone specifically asked for fire extinguishers and Kahne grabbed one from his tour bus.
As Taylor and others worked to get the occupants out of the burning vehicles, Kahne and a second man used fire extinguishers to try to keep the growing flames at bay, according to witnesses and firefighters.
Taylor ran up to a white pickup truck and used a flashlight that he kept on his belt to punch through the driver’s side window. A curtain air bag covered the window on the inside, protecting the driver from the shattered glass.
Taylor reached in, and fumbled around to find the button to unlock the door. Once he got the door open, he reached across the driver, unbuckled his seatbelt and started pulling him out by the shoulders.
He got the driver halfway out and then the driver’s feet got stuck under the steering wheel. Someone else, Taylor doesn’t even know who, helped dislodge his feet and together they carried the man to a shoulder, away from the flaming vehicles.
At that moment, Jason Sheaffer, the assistant fire chief in Richfield, drove in the westbound lanes past the wreckage, on his way home from an evening out in Lancaster with his wife. He saw the driver being carried away from the crumpled burning pickup truck and pulled over as soon as he could.
Traffic on his side of the jersey barrier wasn’t slowing down so he had to be careful not to cause another crash. He parked, jumped over the jersey barrier just as another rescue was unfolding.
An off-duty NYPD officer, Paul Faulk, and his girlfriend, a fourth-year medical school student, Kayla Wilson, had witnessed the crash and pulled over.
Faulk ran up to the truck carrying the camper, broke out the passenger window and single-handedly carried the woman to safety. Faulk and Wilson then worked together to move her farther away as the fire grew. She was alert but critically injured.
Just then, someone hollered that there was another trapped driver. Taylor and Sheaffer both heard the call for help. Wilson, and later, two other women, stayed with the injured woman and continued talking to her to keep her alert.
Sheaffer climbed into the cab of the truck attached to the camper from the passenger side because the driver’s side was wedged against the concrete barrier. He couldn’t get the attention of the driver as flames erupted from the engine against the windshield. Sheaffer stepped out of the truck to open his knife to cut back some of the airbags, to create more room to work.
That’s when Taylor dove into the truck past him and started pulling the driver out by the shoulders. Sheaffer climbed into the backseat and helped free up the driver’s legs, which were getting caught on the steering wheel.
“We knew we had mere seconds,” Sheaffer said. “The flames and smoke were getting to the point, we recognized this man only had moments.”
Together, they carried the driver across the road. They later had to move him farther away as the fire got more intense and made loud popping noises.
As a working firefighter and emergency medical technician, Sheaffer said he was immediately impressed with Taylor’s skill.
“I said to him, ‘I don’t know who you are, but you’re a Godsend,” Sheaffer recalled.
Multiple passers-by and bystanders had called 911 to report the wrong-way driver and later, the crash. One of the bystanders handed Sheaffer her phone at one point to help direct incoming emergency vehicles and give medical updates on the wounded so crews could be prepared.
The driver of the truck pulling the camper appeared dead, Sheaffer said, and he was relaying as much to the dispatchers.
“We have two class one patients and one DOA,” Sheaffer reported, but then he heard someone yell, ‘No, he’s moving!”
Sheaffer updated his report to the dispatchers: “Make that three class one and I’ll need a helicopter.”
Meanwhile, Taylor had stayed with the driver of the truck pulling the camper, who started talking to rescuers after being removed from his truck.
A woman rescuer asked the driver if anyone was in the camper and the driver said no, then started calling his wife’s name. The driver said they were coming from the races.
Upon command, the driver moved his toes and talked with rescuers until the ambulance showed up.
When Dauphin-Middle Paxton Fire Company Assistant Chief Shane Swenson, showed up minutes after they were dispatched, all three occupants were out of their vehicles. The wreckage was engulfed in heavy fire.
“If no one had stopped and pulled them out,” he said, “they would have been burned. The fire was everywhere. That’s no doubt. There was no way they were getting out of the vehicles but luckily, the Good Samaritans pulled them out.”
Typically it’s not advisable to remove someone from a wreckage, because it could worsen their injuries, but with flames bearing down, there was no other option, Swenson said.
Firefighters, including from the Duncannon Fire Company, worked together to douse the vehicles to extinguish the fire, which by now had spread into the camper.
“We had to cut a hole in the side of the camper and start pulling stuff out, including a mattress,” Swenson said, describing how they had to dismantle the fuel source for the fire to be able to fully extinguish it.
The truck that had been driven the wrong way had melted down to its frame.
As it turned out, the wrong-way driver died at the hospital. He was later identified as Michael Hoy, 64, of Daytona Beach, Florida.
It remains unclear where he got onto the separated highway on the wrong side, and why, but bystanders reported swerving to avoid him six miles away, near the Fishing Creek exit. Residents in the area wondered if he mistakenly got on the wrong ramp and didn’t know how to turn around. The cause remains under investigation, police said.
On Tuesday, police confirmed the second driver, 65-year-old Randy L. Deibelbi of Fleetwood, Berks County, also died. The passenger in his vehicle remains in the hospital Tuesday with life-threatening injuries, police said.
While the rescuers’ efforts didn’t save the drivers’ lives, it saved the passenger and avoided death by fire for the drivers, which was as much as could be done given the dire situation, they said.
“I was heartbroken when I heard they didn’t make it,” Sheaffer said. “But maybe they got to have some closure with that extra time with their family.”
Sheaffer said he was proud of how all the rescuers worked together, particularly the seamless way he interacted with Taylor, and a still unidentified woman rescuer who appeared to have nursing skills.
“I saw mankind come together that night,” Sheaffer said. “Three people came together, and worked together and it’s something I’ll never forget.”