On the morning of July 11, 17-year-old Cody Wilke became a hero.
It was just before 9 a.m. and Wilke was already busy knocking down weeds at Ravalli Electric Cooperative’s new facility near U.S. Highway 93’s Bell Crossing when he heard the distinct sound of a crash.
“I was just doing my job when I heard the sound behind me,” Wilke said Thursday night.
When he turned, he saw that two vehicles had collided in the intersection. One was on fire.
The Hamilton teen immediately dropped his weed eater and began to run as fast as he could toward the wreck.
“It was a quite a ways,” Wilke said. “It took me maybe a minute and a half at a dead sprint over a fence and through a ditch to get there. The vehicle was on fire before I even started running. It was kind of instinctual.”
Some cars had begun to slow down for the accident, but Wilke was the first one on the scene. He immediately went to help the driver of the burning vehicle. He found a man suffering from a number of severe injuries behind the wheel.
“He seemed kind of shell-shocked when I got there,” Wilke said. “I don’t think he really knew what was happening. I told him, ‘Your car is on fire. Let’s get you out.’”
By that time, the flames were already pushing up against the windshield and working their way into the cab.
To make matters worse, the man’s seatbelt was jammed due to the crash. Wilke tried to get the button to work to release the belt, but it was locked tight.
So he pulled out his pocket knife and used its handle to bang on the top of the belt until it finally released.
The man initially tried getting out on his own, but he couldn’t. So he leaned on Wilke’s shoulder as the two made their way to safety on the nearby shoulder of the road.
Behind them, the vehicle exploded.
As soon as Wilke was certain that man was safe, he hurried over to the other vehicle involved in the accident to see if the driver required assistance.
“She was OK,” Wilke said.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremiah Snider was on duty that morning. At 8:58 a.m., he was notified of an injury crash at Bell Crossing that had completely blocked the road.
“As I was responding, I could see a large plume of black smoke rising from the general area of the crash scene,” Snider wrote in his report. “Upon arrival, I observed several fire trucks and first responders and a vehicle in the middle of the intersection that was fully engulfed in flames.”
Shortly after Snider got out of his patrol vehicle, he was met by a young man with an incredible story.
“There is little doubt in my mind that Cody Wilke’s heroic response and lack of his own personal safety saved the life of the male driver in this passenger vehicle,” Snider wrote. “As a result of this selfless display of moral and physical courage, I respectfully recommend Cody Wilke for The Colonel’s Citation for Meritorious Service.”
The meritorious service citation is an honor presented by the Montana Highway Patrol to citizens who help in life-threatening situations.
On Thursday night, in a small ceremony presided over by Montana Highway Patrol Missoula District Commander, Jim Kitchin, Snider presented Wilke with the award.
Wilke said the Missoula man he pulled out of the vehicle has reached out to him on the telephone.
“He said he would like to meet up sometime,” Wilke said. “We haven’t had a chance to do that yet.”
With his award in one hand and the thumb of his other hand looped behind his big silver belt buckle, Wilke smiled when asked how it feels to know he most likely saved a man’s life.
“It feels good,” he said. “Really good.”
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.