What was supposed to be a routine visit to Hardwood Range near Volk Field, Wisconsin for two members of the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team quickly became a more urgent situation.
As Tech. Sgt. Erich Sanford, EOD team leader, and Staff Sgt. Matthew Vandermolen, EOD journeyman, had traveled about 20 minutes north from Madison, Wisconsin on I-90, they came across a smoking car in the ditch, with the engine running and someone still inside. Sanford pulled over and told Vandermolen to remain in the vehicle to secure items they were bringing to the range, then ran along the roadside back to the smoking car.
He was joined by another motorist who also stopped near the scene, and as they approached the car it appeared as if the cruise control was still engaged.
"I looked at the guy through the window and he was just rigid, like he was pushing himself back against the seat, and there was vomit on his jacket," Sanford said.
After trying to open all the doors and discovering they were locked, there was only one option — they had to break a window. Once inside, Sanford shifted the car in park and turned off the engine.
"I know there was an injury and I should have assessed whether or not it was spinal, but the car was on fire and it was more important to me to keep the guy alive," Sanford said. "I bent him forward, some vomit fell out of his mouth and I heard him gasp half a breath. I put my arm under him and dragged him back to the rear tire."
The other motorist who had stopped then helped Sanford carry him further away from the smoking car.
"We got him about 25 meters away and as I looked down I saw the fire was now spreading on the grass and part of the car was on fire," he said. "That's when I called Vandermolen to tell him to bring the fire extinguishers down."
Not every Airman carries a fire extinguisher in their government vehicle, but due to the nature of their missions, the EOD Airmen do.
Vandermolen grabbed the two 40-pound fire extinguishers, as well as the items he was instructed to secure, and started running down the interstate with them. In the meantime, Sanford and another man moved the victim 25 meters further from the wreckage and placed him near a Columbia County Sheriff’s Department deputy's car that had just arrived.
Sanford left the victim with the deputy and grabbed the extinguishers from Vandermolen. Smoke was pouring out from the engine compartment and the trim on the wheel wells was on fire, and Sanford applied the extinguisher until the flames were completely out.
He then went back to the spot the deputy was at and asked for another pair of latex gloves.
"The victim was right where I had left him, so I put him into a better recovery position, made sure the rest of the vomit was out of his mouth and pushed his tongue down to ensure I had his airway open so he could breath," Sanford said. "I did that for another minute or two until the paramedics got there."
After the Airmen gave their identification and any details they had to the deputies for the accident report, they got back in the truck and were on their way to their original mission. That is when they called back to base to update their supervisor on the day's events.
"He didn't tell me what had happened, he just told me he had used a fire extinguisher," said Master Sgt. Gilbert Holcomb, 115th Fighter Wing EOD noncommissioned officer in charge. "All I wanted to know was, 'why was the truck on fire?'"
That is when Sanford explained the entire scenario.
"I wouldn't expect anything less from them," Holcomb said. "In fact, I wouldn't be very worried about any of my guys being able to go through a situation like that. My guys have the training they need, they are competent and they take pride in what they do, so for them to deal with an incident like that I don't think any of them would have problems with it."
This was not the first time these EOD Airmen have had to react quickly in a life-threatening situation.
"I've been on a combat deployment as EOD and we've been to post-blasts — plenty of them — one where a fuel truck had blown up and there were lots of burned-out cars and dead people," Sanford said. "I've been around for mortar attacks where people get hit, and been there for the tourniquets being applied and everything, but I suppose this is the first time that I've been this close to saving the wounded individual."
At least during this emergency, he was able to stay focused on the victim.
"When you're in a war-type environment, you're always worried about secondaries, tertiaries, ambushes — I wasn't concerned about anyone sneaking up on me," Sanford said. "I just assumed there was only the one hazard so I got to focus on that."
According to Sanford, it worked out that he and Vandermolen were running behind schedule that morning. It meant they were in the right place at exactly the right time.
The car accident victim went by ambulance to UW Health’s University Hospital in Madison.