Rescue from fiery crash on interstate bond aliens – KION546

By David Wahlberg

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LODI, Wis. ( State Journal) — When an eight-vehicle crash left Ross Kopfer and his 11-year-old son trapped in their Ford F-150 pickup truck with the hood on fire, they wouldn’t have never imagined that passers-by would save them.

But as some bystanders captured smartphone video of the bloody scene on Interstate 39-90-94 near Lodi, a truck driver, mother and her two young adult children rescued the injured Kopfers seconds before the crash. explosion of their vehicle, saving two lives in June. On December 12, 2020, in a chain collision that killed four people.

Two years later, the former strangers share a bond forged through serendipity and heroism. The rescue was not without risks and sacrifices: long hospital stays for the Kopfers, event-related heart problems for the trucker, and a mixture of honorable and haunting memories for the young adults.

“They risked their lives to save our lives,” said Kopfer, 52, a financial adviser from Oconomowoc who has two older children. “Thank God they were there, and they were the ones who were called to do what they did.”

Earl Morgan-Heft, 60, of Lone Rock, the now-retired truck driver who extracted Kopfer and his son, Jacob, said he knew he had to act fast. “I had to choose who I thought was alive and who I thought was dead, and who could I save,” he said.

Tyler Martins, 20, and his sister Erica Martins, 24, both from Hartland, stopped in on the spot with their mother, Julie. They ran to the scene and helped Morgan-Heft help the Kopfers.

“I’d rather take two people out and risk my own life than live with the guilt of not trying,” said Tyler, who last month started working as a Waukesha County sheriff’s deputy.

“It was just reaction,” said Erica, an emergency room nurse at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee. “There was no time to think and no hesitation.”

Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Edward Witkiewicz, who responded to the crash, said Morgan-Heft and the Martins “absolutely saved” the Kopfers’ lives. “I get goosebumps when I talk about it,” he said. “For these people to take action and save lives, literally, is heroic.”

Officials praise the bravery of Good Samaritans, but say motorists should exercise caution when approaching similar situations. Citizens may encounter shredded metal, broken glass, combustible liquids and dangerous traffic in such scenarios, Witkiewicz said. Unless the circumstances are life-threatening, as was the case with the Kopfers, it’s best to call 911 and wait for first responders, he said.

“I don’t approve of people stopping at the scenes, but it definitely helps,” Witkiewicz said.

Kopfer, who spent more than two months at UW Hospital recovering from numerous injuries after initially being near death, said he was also grateful to the nurses and other staff who cared. from him. Jacob, now 13, was at American Family Children’s Hospital at UW for 13 days. Visitors were restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic which began three months earlier.

“Not only was I getting physical care from them, but they were a huge source of meeting my emotional and mental needs,” Kopfer said in an interview with UW Health.

On that fateful Friday in 2020, Ross and Jacob Kopfer were heading to Mauston for a baseball tournament involving Jacob’s team which Ross was coaching. They left Oconomowoc around 5:40 a.m., a few minutes later than planned.

Around 6:45 a.m., near Highway K in Columbia County, northbound traffic on the highway had been at a standstill from two previous crashes. After the Kopfers pulled over, a tractor-trailer traveling at highway speeds hit their truck and caused a collision involving six other vehicles, according to the state patrol.

Barely able to move from his injuries and confined by his seat belt, Kopfer told Jacob to open the passenger door. Then he realized it was impossible. “There were no doors,” he said. “Our front doors were accordions.”

As flames emerged from under the dashboard, Kopfer prayed for help even though he believed he and Jacob were going to die. Soon Morgan-Heft appeared. The trucker vowed to get Kopfer out but ran to the passenger side first to help Jacob.

As Morgan-Heft dragged Jacob out the back door, Tyler Martins showed up, helping him free the boy. Erica, who had just finished nursing school, saw that Jacob’s arm was ungloved from elbow to wrist, the skin apparently torn away by his seat belt. She took off her shirt and wrapped it around her arm to control the bleeding, a makeshift tourniquet later reinforced with elastic cord Tyler found on a nearby truck.

Julie Martins, 51, a probation and parole officer, called 911 to report the accident and collected blankets and towels from the arrested motorists to wrap the victims.

Morgan-Heft returned to Kopfer’s truck. The smell, previously of burnt plastic, now carried the smell of oil. The trucker tilted Kopfer’s seat, undid his seatbelt, and began to pull him through the rear passenger door. Tyler came back and helped Morgan-Heft take out Kopfer.

Less than a minute later, the truck exploded, Kopfer said. Morgan-Heft and Tyler “could easily have been in the truck when it exploded, trying to get us out,” he said.

He and Jacob were taken to Madison in separate ambulances.

Joseph Kosinski, 72, of Madison, was killed in the pileup; Eleanor Heeringa-Owen, 59, of DeForest; Samantha McMullen, 23, of Oconomowoc; and Phillip Bruno, 55, of Ingleside, Illinois. Four people were injured and three were injured in the second of two previous crashes.

Both Kopfer and Jacob had their legs broken, with Jacob also suffering a crushed foot, lung injury, cuts to his face, and his arm dislodged. Kopfer also had a broken pelvis, 12 broken ribs, a broken eye socket, and injuries to his liver, kidneys, colon, diaphragm, aorta and lungs, requiring 11 surgeries and being on a ventilator for weeks.

Kopfer said he still had pain, especially in his ribs, and that he could no longer play golf or lift heavy objects because he was at risk of having hernias, since the pigskin made him now served as the abdominal wall. But he returned to hunting, fishing, skiing and running.

Jacob, a seventh grader at St. Charles Catholic School in Hartland, is playing baseball and basketball again, with Kopfer coaching his baseball team. They went to another baseball tournament this weekend in DeForest, not far from the crash site.

Jacob said he didn’t remember the incident and found the discussion “surreal”.

Morgan-Heft, who left the Fort Transportation terminal in Fort Atkinson the morning of the accident to pick up a load in the Twin Cities, suffered a series of heart attacks two months later. He said doctors told him the heart attacks, which he had never had before, were likely related to exertion and smoke inhalation during the rescue.

Last August, Morgan-Heft underwent a heart transplant at UW Hospital. He had to take medical retirement from his job, but said he was fine and could still pursue his favorite activity: fishing.

When one of his 17 grandchildren asked him what would have happened if he had died helping the Kopfers, he replied, “I would have left behind two beautiful people.”

In 2020, the Truckload Carriers Association named Morgan-Heft a Highway Angel.

Tyler Martins, who graduated from Lake Country Lutheran High School the month before the crash, earned a criminal justice degree from Waukesha County Technical College this spring. Kopfer spoke at his graduation ceremony, where Tyler received the school’s Citizen Service Award for his role in the rescue.

“You represent the best of a bad situation,” Kopfer told Tyler in his speech.

Erica Martins, a graduate of Valparaiso University School of Nursing in Indiana in May 2020, was studying for her nursing license exam in the back seat on the day of the crash, as Tyler drove the family to Minnesota to visit relatives.

She started working in a medical-surgical unit at St. Luke’s in September 2020 before moving to the emergency room in April, where “I like the chaos, the adrenaline,” she said.

Julie Martins said she was worried about her children’s mental health following the wreckage, which was marred by horrific sights, sounds and smells, and caused regrets that she could not save others. She encouraged them to seek advice, which they did, including from a local pastor.

“Holding him down just makes it worse,” Tyler said.

Kopfer said occasional encounters with the Martins and with Morgan-Heft helped them all heal. “I think they need it as much as I do,” he said.

Erica Martins said the unpredictable encounter changed all of their lives for good and bad, with the gratification of the lives saved being outweighed by some depression and anxiety in addition to the physical scars.

“We are all broken because of this,” she said. “But there is a lot of beauty in brokenness.”

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Garland K. Long