Stuck and Stucker: Truck Drivers Learn a Hard Lesson in Emergency Scene Management

I’m a bit of a car nerd. I like driving them, working on them, racing them, I even like reading about them. Thanks to my father (he used to rally-drive), I learned to do handbrake turns as a teenager before I learned to parallel park. I didn’t ever think there was much of a connection between my fascination with cars and emergency planning, but if you keep your eyes open, you find lessons everywhere.

The race and camera crews for Boyd Coddington, host of TV’s American Hotrod got stuck heading back to town after a day’s shooting. Unable to dig themselves out, they called for help. About two hours later the wrecker and flatbed trucks in the background arrived. Photos: Ron Christensen

SpeedWeek is an annual event held on the Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah. Miles of flat, level and salt-encrusted desert make an ideal racing surface for drivers from all over the world to run time trials and attempt setting land speed records. At the 2007 event, thanks to a rare torrent of rain, the salt surface was especially thin in places and a motor home transporting a racing crew broke through and got stuck. The crew called for help and two trucks arrived. And also got stuck.

The motor home crew was sure they would be back underway in minutes. Except that the wreckers weigh about half again as much as the motor home. They broke through the salt and got stuck too. “No problem,” said the wrecker crews. Big Blue would get them all out.

The truck drivers called for help from a third truck nicknamed “Big Blue”. Big Blue arrived and set about freeing the other two trucks.

It got stuck too.

In trying to tow the yellow wrecker out, Big Blue had managed to drag it 100 ft. until the mud was six feet high on driver’s side before getting itself stuck in four feet of mud and as well.

The yellow wrecker, rather than sitting level, was now listing about 40 degrees to the left with its right-hand tires about a foot off the ground

By 10:30pm, the three trucks were mired, in places, six feet deep in the clay-like mud under the salt pan. The motor home hadn’t moved.  All four vehicles wound up spending the night in the desert. In the morning, a fourth wrecker truck (that’s five vehicles altogether for those scoring along at home) arrived and began carefully extricating the other wreckers and the motor home, one by one.

The crews managed to free the flatbed truck and backed it up to free Big Blue, but it broke through the salt and got stuck. Again. This time worse than before.

In a last-ditch attempt to pull the motor home free, the crews hooked the incapacitated Big Blue to the motor home and tried to winch it out. But the boom winch was not aligned with the motor home for a tow, so it was damaged. Under tension, there was no way to unhook the cable and the damaged winch wouldn’t release. Now there was the added hazard of the 1000-foot tow cable pulled taut as a guitar string through the night air about 3 feet off the ground.

The hard lesson the truck drivers learned is one that applies to all responders, whether they are firefighters, policemen, or occupational first aid: always perform a scene assessment as soon as you arrive and before you enter the scene to give aid. Neglecting to do this can result in a situation becoming twice (or three times, or four times…) as bad as before as the responder becomes an addition to the problem rather than contributing to a solution. Utah Salt Flats Racing Association

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