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Friday, July 01, 2016 10:21 am

Rescuers at horrific semi crash honored

Rebecca S. Green | The Journal Gazette

May 24 was the most ordinary of days.

An ordinary stretch of U.S. 30 in Columbia City. Ordinary people doing ordinary things.

For Jim "Soup" Campbell of Vermillion, Ohio, the day turned into an extraordinarily bad one in the blink of an eye when another semi truck rolled up the back of his empty car-hauler and landed on the roof of his cab.

The saddle gas tanks on the truck atop his semi ruptured, spewing fuel and fire. Campbell was trapped. 

Within seconds, though, passers-by and other motorists grabbed fire extinguishers, keeping the flames off him. Then first responders began showing up.

Campbell got a chance to meet and thank many of those first responders – police officers, firefighters and medics – who literally pulled him from the fire, saving his life.

Parkview Whitley Hospital hosted a special luncheon Thursday afternoon to facilitate the meeting and to present those who saved him with awards for their heroic efforts that morning.

Campbell recalled telling one of his rescuers, Doug Reed, he believed he would die in that fiery semi.

"He said, ‘No, sir. Not today,’ " Campbell told the gathering. "What can I say but thank you. I am very glad to be here today."

Reed, a Columbia City firefighter, was not present at the ceremony. But he received the State Fire Marshal’s Office Medal of Valor for his courageous actions.

Also receiving the award, presented by Indiana State Fire Marshal James Greeson, was fellow Columbia City firefighter Chris LaRue, Whitley County Sheriff’s Deputy Tony Helfrich and Parkview Whitley EMS paramedic Blake Forrester.

Thirteen others, along with those four, were presented the Guardian Angel Award by the Parkview Whitley Foundation for the care and compassion they displayed during the rescue. 

Columbia City Fire Chief Tom LaRue recalled the crash and the response, remembered pulling up on the scene and seeing black smoke and flames.

The ground was littered with spent fire extinguishers from those trying to help.

"I was thinking this is unsurvivable," he said. "I figured it was nothing but a recovery."

But he saw his people running around, working frantically, something they would not have been doing had there already been a loss of life.

"Then I heard your voice," Tom LaRue said, looking toward Campbell who was seated with his daughter amid the lunch crowd.

The chief praised those who stopped to help, the dispatchers who handled frantic calls about the horrific scene and the police officers, firefighters and others who grabbed tools off fire trucks, hauled hose across the asphalt and held it aloft as firefighters sprayed water on the flames. He reserved his highest praise, though, for those who were honored by name Thursday.

"You took your personal safety and cast it aside," Tom LaRue said. "And this guy is sitting here today."

As he presented the medals of valor, Greeson praised the responders for their extraordinary bravery but remembered that it was just another example of normal people doing the work they love to do.

"You did something extraordinary on an ordinary day."

rgreen@jg.net