ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A tow truck operator who stopped to help after falling ice crushed a pickup truck on the Seward Highway and seriously injured the driver may have saved the woman's life, an Anchorage Fire Department captain said Sunday.
The injured woman, Amanda Lawton, suffered head injuries on Friday afternoon. She remains hospitalized but is improving, according to posts on a Facebook page titled "Help Amanda" being updated by friends.
Lawton is a labor and delivery nurse at Providence Alaska Medical Center and her husband, Greg, is a new Anchorage firefighter, according to friends.
In what fire Capt. Mike Melchert called a freak accident, a giant ice wall let loose just as Lawton drove past in a pickup truck between Potter Marsh and Beluga Point. The ice waterfall was maybe 30 feet fall tall. It ripped away from the roadside cliff in stages, he said.
"There was a huge chunk of ice that hit her square on the top of the truck," Melchert said. "And it flattened the roof to ... the bottom of the window. And it pushed her down, her face to her lap."
The piece that slammed her truck broke apart on impact, a witness told him. One hunk still in the road when rescuers arrived was the size of a pickup bed.
Other drivers stopped to help. Some told dispatchers the woman struggled to breathe because of being pressed down so tightly.
Tow truck driver Nick Webb was heading south to Indian to free a stuck vehicle.
"I was the third one in line. We came around this corner and saw crushed ice, just big chunks of ice all in the road, and this car right in the middle of it. It was just flat," Webb said. He was surprised they were the first ones there. While he's used to crash scenes, he's not used to being a first responder.
Webb, a part-owner of Webb's Towing & Recovery Service, flipped on his tow truck lights and jumped out. A woman who seemed to have medical training said that the injured woman was trapped and couldn't breathe. A man who had been driving a U-Haul called for Webb to bring his tow truck over.
Webb managed to hook onto the crumpled pickup door but couldn't pull it off its hinges. A group of men tried to muscle the door off. The truck was still running. People worried it might catch fire. No one was sure how to free the woman from the truck. Fire crews from two South Anchorage stations were still heading south.
"Everyone was kind of in a panic," Webb said.
The Good Samaritan rescuers asked if he could pull the crushed roof off the truck.
He figured he could and extended the truck boom over the crushed roof. They broke a bit of glass out of the shattered windshield and passed a cable through it. Some other people held her still while he worked the machinery. He used a winch line to lift up the roof to nearly its normal height.
"We were just trying to relieve pressure," he said. "She was squished. We were just trying to unsquish her."
What Webb and the others did may have saved her life, said Melchert, who wrote a letter to the fire chief and the firefighters union praising Webb's actions.
"If he wouldn't have been there with his tow truck and made the choice to do that, there's a real good chance she would have died in there just from not being able to breathe," Melchert said. "It was a huge thing that he did."
He said he's not advocating that tow truck operators routinely hook into wrecked cars and start pulling them apart. But in this situation - with a trapped woman struggling for breath at a crash site miles from the nearest fire station - the passersby did the right thing, Melchert said.
When fire crews arrived, they used cutters and other tools to cut away the roof and lift the injured woman out of the truck. Only later did Melchert realize she was the wife of a new firefighter.