CASA GRANDE — John Leong has seen a number of devastating accidents over his more than 35 years of working as a truck driver, but last Thursday was the first time that he felt that he was actually able to do something to help save a victim.
At around 11:30 a.m. on June 17, Leong was driving his truck down Interstate 8 when he saw a small SUV fail to make the turn onto the Thornton Road exit and drive off the edge of the pavement. When the driver tried to turn the vehicle back onto the pavement, the SUV started to barrel roll, he said.
Leong said he saw clothing, toys and other things fly out of the vehicle as it rolled. He also saw two women, one of them the driver, get ejected from the vehicle. One woman landed in the middle of the road, he said. The other woman landed on the side of the road and was screaming for help.
Leong said he knew he had to act and he had to act fast. He pulled over, hopped out of his truck and ran toward the vehicle. As he approached he could hear a couple of young kids screaming in the backseat. He could also see flames starting to show at the front end of the vehicle.
Both kids were still strapped into their child safety seats when he reached the vehicle, Leong said. When he wasn’t able to unbuckle one of the kids from their seat he pulled out his knife and cut the strap.
He grabbed both kids and tried to keep them from seeing the women while he hustled them back to the air-conditioned cab of his truck. One of the kids kept crying “Mommy, Mommy,” he said.
He set the kids up with drinks and then ran back to the burning SUV with the fire extinguisher from his truck. He used it on the vehicle and then pulled the woman who was lying in the middle of the road to the edge of the road that was farthest away from the burning vehicle.
At that moment, an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper showed up and checked on the second woman.
After dragging the first woman to the side of the road, Leong returned to help the trooper pull the second woman onto the hood of the trooper’s car so they could move her away from the burning SUV.
Leong said the fire was so hot that the SUV’s tires melted and ran like wax across the pavement.
It seemed like forever before first responders got to the scene, Leong said. He thought it might have been as long as 20 to 30 minutes before the trooper came.
His greatest disappointment was that no other motorists or truckers stopped to help. People are just too scared, he said. They’re afraid they might do something wrong and get sued for it.
“I wasn’t going to leave those kids in a burning car,” he said. “I’m not wired that way.”
It wasn’t long after the trooper came that a second trooper, firefighters and paramedics arrived. Then two helicopters came to fly the two women to Phoenix hospitals. One of the troopers was also sent to a hospital for smoke inhalation.
He said it was a great relief when the grandparents of the children showed up to take custody of them.
Leong said it wasn’t until he was sitting in the air-conditioned backseat of one of the troopers’ vehicles that he realized the toll the heat, smoke and exertion of the rescue had taken on him. He said he was covered from the top of his head to his boots in blood and he was struggling to breathe because of the smoke he had inhaled.
“I probably should have gotten checked out myself,” he admitted.
Leong said this is not the first bad accident he has seen in his career driving trucks.
One particular accident that sticks in his mind is a head-on crash between a car and a semi-truck that he saw in Georgia, he said. That accident was so bad that the only thing he could do was hold the hand of the man who had been driving the car until he died. He said it breaks his heart that people don’t stop to help when they see an accident.
Leong said he is glad that everyone involved in the accident was able to get out. However, he hadn’t heard how the two women were doing after they were flown to Phoenix.
“I would absolutely do it again,” he said. “I’m just glad to be able to do something like that. I’m glad I had enough in me to get it done.”