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At about 1:20 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7 a runaway big rig lost its brakes near El Tejon School and went smashing down the steep Grapevine grade at 100 miles per hour. It crashed into the back of this Freightliner, erupting into flames. See Video Interview below.
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Chris Hughes, 23 and his uncle John Hughes, 53 of Lebec were still wired with adrenaline as they told reporters for The Mountain Enterprise about their extraordinary efforts to release driver Philip Frear from his seat belt and pull the big rig cab door from its hinges to get him out of the fire in time. See video interview below.
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Kern County firefighters were delayed in getting to the crash by traffic backed up for six miles and lengths of pipe strewn across the roadway. They arrived about 15 minutes after the crash, John Hughes estimates. They immediately worked to put the fire out and tended to the injured. The Hughes were appreciative of their skill. The ambulance arrived about 30 minutes after the crash. Frear was medevacked to Bakdersfield, and then to a burn center in Fresno. [Photo courtesy KCFD] See video interview below.
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John Hughes, left and newphew Chris Huges used this 4-wheel drive Ford Ranger and the tow chain shown here to pull the door off the crushed cab of the burning big rig to get driver Philip Frear out of the flames and into safety. The men are shown here in front of their construction work site in Los Padres Estates Friday, still wearing the clothes they had on during the rescue. [photo courtesy of Barbara Hughes] See video interview below.
By Patric Hedlund
If it was the adrenaline that still gave Chris and John Hughes a rugged energy in the freezing evening of Friday, Jan. 7, it was pure wonder at the many coincidences that may have stacked up to save a man’s life that they couldn’t stop talking about.
While they spoke with reporters for The Mountain Enterprise, truck driver Philip Frear, 48 of Texas was being flown to a Fresno burn center in critical condition for specialty care.
John Hughes, 53 of Lebec stood outside with his nephew, Chris Hughes, 23 (a Frazier Mountain High School graduate who recently returned from Oregon). They wanted to show the 1991 Ford Ranger and tow chain they had used to pull the door from Frear’s smashed and burning freightliner at the base of the Grapevine.
That afternoon, the men had left Los Padres Estates for a quick errand in Bakersfield. They are working on construction, renovating a Lebec home. Because they had earlier helped a neighbor stuck in the snow, they had a tow chain in the 4-wheel drive truck.
About 1:10 p.m., as they were passing the area near El Tejon School, the men noticed a big rig hauling four tiers of heavy, 20-foot-long steel piping on a long flatbed. Its brakes were smoking. They sped up to get out of the way. It was in the far right “slow truck lane,” moving at about 35-40 miles per hour, Chris Hughes recalls. He was driving the Ranger at about 65 mph.
“I noticed when we passed the first runaway truck ramp,” Chris said, “I thought ‘that is where I would go if I was driving that rig’—but he began to catch up with us, and then we saw that he couldn’t get to the truck ramp without hitting a car, there was too much traffic between him and the ramp, so he moved back into the right lanes.”
By then the big rig was gathering so much speed that it shot by the Hughes’ Ranger. They slowed down, looking a half mile down the incline below them. Both men still look startled as they tell of their fear anticipating what they were about to see. “We were screaming, ‘No! Oh God no!” Chris said.
“He was going 100 miles per hour by then, and there was traffic bunched up at the bottom of the Grapevine, about 60 cars in front of him,” John Hughes recalls. “That man saved lives. He made a decision and shot into the right lane… then disappeared. We saw dust and flying pipes and debris like metal parts flying into the air everywhere.”
As they approached they saw that the cab of the truck had slammed into the back of another big rig. They noticed an elbow and John jumped out to run to help. Chris pulled the truck over and ran with a knife for John to cut the top of the driver’s safety belt. They couldn’t get the door open. They tried pry bars, and another man joined them trying to pry it open. The flames were intense and the smoke turned from white to black. John ran to get his truck and attached the tow chain to the frame, then backed up to the big rig driver’s door and told Chris and the other man to wrap the chain around the top of the door. They did. He slammed the truck into 4- wheel drive and “pressed pedal to the metal” to jerk forward, ripping the door from its hinges. He jumped out of the Ranger and ran back to cut the lower strap from Frear’s safety belt. Frear came tumbling out in his arms.
The big rig driver’s legs were on fire. They covered him with a blanket and Hughes lay him in the bed of the Ranger to move him away from the fire. Chris stayed in the back to prop Frear’s legs up to avoid bleeding and comforted him with another man who kept talking, telling him to ‘hang in there,’ and to stay alert.
John ran back to control freeway traffic, and to move pipes out of the road so emergency vehicles could get through, then helped Raymundo Lopez, 52 of Delano, driver of the 2007 Freightliner that had been rearended, get out of his cab. Hughes walked him over to the Ranger. Lopez told Frear, “You are going to make it, man,” Chris remembers. Kern County firefighters were on scene within about 15 minutes of the crash. They took over Frears’ care and put the fire out. An ambulance was on scene within 30 minutes. Frear was medevacked. Both drivers were taken to Kern Medical Center. Frear was then transported to the Leon S. Peters Burn Center in Fresno. The Hughes family is in touch with Mrs. Frears.
This is part of the January 14, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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