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Helping couple stranded on RR tracks just part of trucking ‘life,’ for Highway Hero Tilden Curl

Tilden Curl shares a smile with his wife, Lesli, during a break at the Mid-America Trucking Show March 31. (The Trucker: LYNDON FINNEY)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

5/3/2011

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — We’ve all seen them, the clips from the silent movies.

There’s a damsel in distress, tied to the railroad tracks.

The music of the player piano adds to the emotion of the dire situation.

Then, just as it appears all is lost, in swoops the hero, unties the damsel and pulls her off the tracks just before the train would have…well, you know.

Never happens in real life, you say?

Well, it did, only, of course, the circumstances are a little different.

Fortunately, the outcome was the same.

And for his part in this real life drama, Tilden Curl, an Olympia, Wash., was named the 2010 Goodyear Highway Hero by a vote of members of the Truck Writers of North America.

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Curl was honored during the organization’s annual banquet at the Mid-America Trucking Show March 31 along with three other finalists for the award.

It happened on a sunny, fall afternoon last October as Curl was driving southbound on Highway 99 near Tulare, Calif.

He’d just made a drop at Tulare and stopped at a rest area before heading south on the four-lane road “just thinking about what I needed to accomplish that day to facilitate my schedule,” he recalled during an interview with The Trucker.

“As I was pulling out getting up to speed, there was a car on the left side of the semi up in front of me. The car was weaving toward the semi and he started moving toward the shoulder to get away from the car. The car regained control and the semi was able to accelerate and get out of danger from having a crash himself,” Curl said. “The car then weaved back over toward the right side of the road. I put on my four-ways to keep other traffic away until this car came to rest wherever it was going to be. Instead of pulling off on the shoulder and stopping, he just ran right off the right-of-way where power poles are and beyond that was a railroad track.”

The car stopped when it ran onto the tracks, the right tire hooking over the rail.

Curl pulled over, grabbed his cell phone and headed for the car.

“As I went around the front of the truck, I looked up and there was a train. As soon as I got out there, I saw the train coming and suddenly the situation turned into something it wasn’t a minute ago,” Curl said

Curl could see an older couple in the car.

By this time, the female passenger had emerged from the car and Curl screamed at her to vacate the area, which she did.

But inside Curl could see the lady’s husband trapped in the driver’s seat.

The engineer had seen the car and was braking, but it was long freight train and Curl knew it probably couldn’t stop before reaching the trapped man.

“I knew this guy wasn’t moving and he’s going to have to be assisted. He’s not responding, so I grabbed the car handle and it’s locked,” Curl recalled. “Fortunately, his window was down about six inches so I was able to reach my arm in there, find the inside latch and unlatch the door. I look down and he’s got his seat belt on so I’m fumbling around trying to find the latch. I found the button release and got his seat belt off. I just scooped him up underneath his arms and dragged him out.”

Curl dragged the man, still unconscious, about 50 feet from the car.

Based on conversations at the scene with the wife of the driver, Curl believes the man suffered a diabetic seizure.

“I just kind of held him up there and his wife came up and I put my arm around her and we just stood there for what I think was a couple of seconds and then the train smashed the car,” Curl said.

The wife of the driver, still in shock herself, repeatedly told Curl “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

By this time, another motorist had stopped and had begun to move toward the car.

He later told Curl that no one else could have reached the car before the train crushed it.

“I contacted him when I found out about my nomination and asked him again how long was it after I got the guy out of the car that the train hit. And it said it wasn’t very long at all, maybe three, four, five seconds,” Curl said.

At some point, Curl had dropped his cell phone, so he asked the other motorist to contact his wife, Lesli, in Olympia, where she keeps the books for her husband, an independent contractor.

“I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t take it,” she said. “Then he called back and I thought something happened [to my husband],” she said. “Then the man told me what had happened. I was very proud of my husband.  I wasn’t surprised he was helping someone, because he helps people all the time.”

“It was obvious somebody needed some help,” Curl added. “The more obvious question is why wouldn’t you stop?”

 Yet motorists by the hundreds pass up accidents every day without stopping, Curl was reminded.

“They do, but I can’t speak for them,” he replied.

It’s also a well-known fact in transportation circles that truckers are usually among the first to stop when they see and accident.

Any particular reason?

“I think probably it’s because on a day-to-day basis we’re probably more exposed to tragedies and things happening on the road. We drive as much in one year as the average four-wheeler does in 10,” Curl said. “So if you think of it that way, a person who’s been driving a truck 10 years has seen 100 years worth of things out there. In that time you get to see the ins and outs, the good, the bad. I’ve seen some things in that time that you don’t want anybody to have to go through. I think that probably after a while truckers settle into the idea that this is not only their job, but it’s their livelihood, it’s their life. Once you personalize this industry, it means something; it means a lot more than just a job. I’d even go further to say that most of the things that truck drivers are cursed for probably comes from those who treat it just as a job; they don’t have any personal stock in it.”

Fortunately, for two people on a sunny California afternoon last October, to Tilden Curl, driving a truck is more than a job.

It, along with helping people in distress, is his life.

Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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