‘An amazing moment in time’: Team drivers rescue motorist from burning car in 36 minutes, earn 2019 Highway Angels of the Year Award

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Ed and Tracy Zimmerman
Ed and Tracy Zimmerman were presented with the Highway Angels of the Year award at the Truckload Carriers Association’s Truckload 2020: Orlando. (Courtesy: Hirschbach Motor Lines Inc.)

Most truck drivers spend the better part of the year over the road. In the overall calculations of the total minutes on the road, 36 minutes doesn’t seem very significant.

For Hirschbach Motor Lines, Inc., drivers Ed and Tracy Zimmerman — and one very lucky motorist — on a late spring morning along a West Virginia interstate, it only took 36 minutes for several lives to be changed and one to be saved.

The Zimmermans, a driver team and married couple from Kenesaw, Nebraska, wouldn’t normally have been in West Virginia that day in May 2019, the couple said, noting that the route is one of the less traveled for them. Ed was sleeping as Tracy took her turn at the wheel. While traveling on Interstate 77 near Beckley, West Virginia, the couple arrived on the scene of a fiery crash.

Acting swiftly, Tracy stopped the truck, as another motorist who had stopped to help, approached the window, telling them that a man was stuck in the burning car. Tracy woke Ed and they sprang into action, grabbing their fire extinguisher and heading toward the car without a second thought.

“When that man said that (someone) was still trapped in the burning vehicle, I’m like, ‘We gotta get him out,’” said Ed. “I don’t know how yet. I haven’t seen it yet, but we gotta get him out.”

The Zimmermans, with the help of the other motorist who had stopped to assist, were able to pry the car door open with a crowbar and pull the man from the driver’s seat. Then, the driver revealed that he had a firearm and ammunition in the car.

“We all just kind of looked at each other like, ‘We gotta move, and now,’” explained Ed.

By this time, the small fire extinguisher from the Zimmermans’ truck had been exhausted — and it would likely never have completed the job anyway. They grabbed the driver by the waistband of his pants and pulled him 25 feet or so farther from the car, just as a turnpike courtesy vehicle arrived and parked between the burning vehicle and the group.

“[The courtesy officer] got out of the car and within just minutes, even seconds, you hear the ammunition popping off, and then you hear this big sizzle and a hiss,” shared Tracy. “And then the explosion, as the car went flying in the air.”

Tracy said shortly thereafter the first responders arrived on the scene and treated the driver’s minor injuries, carried him to the hospital, put out the fire, and cleared the road. The Zimmermans’ work was done, and they climbed back into the truck and got back on the road. When Tracy had parked the truck, she never changed her ELD status. The clock had been running and showed that the incident had only taken 36 minutes.

“I looked at that and I’m like, ‘36 minutes?’ It felt like we’d been there for two hours at least,” said Tracy. “We just went into this weird standstill and 36 minutes changed our lives, changed that man’s life; and we saved not just him, but we saved his whole family.”

The Zimmermans later found that the police report said the man had fallen asleep at the wheel after working a late shift. He was headed to see his daughter for her birthday.

“So, we saved not just him; we saved his entire family that day because it really could have changed the course of their family,” added Tracy. “That was just an amazing moment in time.”

Shortly thereafter, the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) heard of the couple’s heroic deed and recognized them as Highway Angels, which is not something the couple expected. They wore the designation as a badge of honor and proudly displayed the sticker on their truck.

The Highway Angel program, now in its 23rd year, recognizes professional truck drivers who have selflessly helped others while on the job. From each year’s Angels, one is selected as Highway Angel of the Year, also known as EpicAngels, by TCA and its partner EpicVue.

For 2019, 38 Angels were recognized, and the Zimmermans were selected as the Highway Angels of the Year. They were recognized and presented with the award at TCA’s Annual Convention — Truckload 2020: Orlando — earlier this year.

“Thank you both for your selfless act of courage on that May morning,” said EpicVue CEO Lance Platt after presenting the Zimmermans with a crystal award.

Before heading to Florida for the convention, the couple heard the news from Hirschbach’s marketing director during a company bowling trip. The couple was “floored,” and Tracy said Ed was speechless, adding that this is something that doesn’t happen often.

As amazing as the award was to the Zimmermans, they two are quick to say that they simply did what they felt was the right thing to do in that moment.

“We stopped to help a human who needed help,” said Ed. “That’s all we did, and that’s why we did it.”

Ed added that he hopes that this award and sharing their story with others will help the image of truck drivers across the nation.

“All everybody ever hears are the bad things that happen out here,” shared Ed. “We really want to push the good stories because, in your darkest hour out here on the road, if, heaven forbid, something happens, a truck driver is going to be the first person on the scene. They’re going to be the first ones there to help you out.”

The remainder of that May day turned out to be just like any other day for the Zimmermans as they carried on delivering their load to Hodgkins, Illinois. Tracy noted, though, that everything could have been different that day if the couple had made one extra stop beforehand, delaying their schedule.

“You know, God puts you where he needs you most, and that day he needed us right there at that moment,” said Tracy. “I really believe that.”

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