Bonnie McKenna knew somehow she needed to offer a prayer of protection to the Victor Volunteer Fire Department when her husband responded to a call early Saturday.
“I think there were a lot of people praying that morning,” she said.
Before the morning was over, a crash sent four people to the hospital, including two firefighters, a fire truck was totaled and McKenna’s husband would come within a foot of losing his life.
The volunteers were called to the scene of a two-vehicle crash on U.S. Highway 93 north of Victor near the bridge that crosses Big Creek about 7 a.m. Saturday.
A combination of smoke from a controlled burn and fog had created a situation where visibility was near zero. The initial crash happened when a driver slowed to accommodate the conditions and a second driver smashed into the rear end of the vehicle.
Victor’s volunteer firefighters responded with their large trucks to protect the crash scene and direct traffic.
They were met by a nightmare scenario where some drivers continued to sail through the heavy smoke and fog at high speed.
“I can tell you that I’ve been with the department for 20 years and I can only think of one time that I was that afraid,” said former fire chief Scott Hackett. “It was like standing there with a sheet over your head and you know that traffic is coming at you at 65 mph and there’s nothing you can do.”
The crash blocked the highway’s southbound lanes. After the fire department arrived and moved their trucks into place to protect those working the accident, southbound drivers were driving into the northbound lanes to get around the accident.
The inversion then moved further south and enveloped the truck that was doing traffic control.
“People couldn’t see the truck,” Hackett said.
While some drivers slowed, a pickup truck passed the slower-moving traffic and slammed into the side of the fire engine. The pickup truck’s mirror struck one of the firefighters and another was injured from the resulting crash.
The pickup rolled. The two men inside weren’t wearing seat belts. They were taken via ambulance to Missoula.
Victor Fire Chief Mason Kay was working to clear a car from the initial wreck when the engine was hit.
“That’s a sound you don’t forget,” Kay said. “One of the firemen yelled ‘mayday. The truck has been hit’ on the radio. I can still hear that.”
The firefighter who was hit by the mirror got up and moved south to try to get traffic to slow down.
“We still had multiple cars coming in,” Kay said. “You could hear tires squealing as people slammed on their brakes.”
Victor Volunteer EMT Roylene Gaul was driving the ambulance that transported the two injured firefighters to Hamilton. The firefighter hit by the mirror was bruised badly. Gaul credits her protective gear in saving her life.
“She is very, very lucky to be alive,” Gaul said.
All of the people injured have been released from the hospital.
They weren’t far into their drive to the hospital when Gaul heard her fellow EMT scream.
That EMT had just seen a vehicle nearly hit volunteer firefighter John McKenna.
Moments earlier, McKenna and Hackett had taken a truck south to Bell Crossing to expand the warning area for drivers headed into the smoke and fog. Unfortunately, it shifted their direction.
Hackett was walking on the shoulder to try to get out of the fog. McKenna was in the passing lane when a vehicle apparently noticed the flares alongside the road and slammed on their brakes. A Suburban pulling a boat swung over into the passing lane and then braked hard when the driver spotted McKenna.
“I turned away because I thought it was done,” Hackett said. “I literally thought the guy’s life was gone.”
McKenna remembers seeing the vehicle bearing down on him. He remembers the sound of its brakes locking. And he remembers that for a moment, it seemed to mirror his movements as he tried to get out of the way.
“It was one of those fog of war kind of things,” McKenna said. “It seemed like when I moved one way, it went the same way. It seemed like it was targeting me. We did a little dance before it went by me.”
McKenna believes the vehicle missed him by about a foot.
Gaul said the entire episode that morning was disheartening.
“People blew right through our roadblocks,” she said. “They screamed obscenities at us when we told them the road was closed. People need to remember that we’re all volunteers. We’re out there for one reason — their safety and the safety of others.”
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Bennett said the volunteer firefighters did exactly what they are trained to do.
“When they respond to the scene of an accident, they use their trucks to block both sides of the scene,” Bennett said. “That protects everyone on foot. The truck that was hit did what it was supposed to do, even though it ended up sustaining thousands of dollars of damage.”
Drivers need to drive at a speed that’s based on road conditions at the time.
“If you are going so fast that you can’t see fire trucks with their emergency lights on, then you’re going too fast,” Bennett said. “I don’t doubt that with all the new people in the valley, there are some who don’t drive the way we do in Montana. Slow down, take your time and be considerate.”
This time of year it’s not unusual for a heavy fog to form on the valley floor in the morning. In a few weeks, the roads could be covered with black ice. Driving faster than what the road conditions warrant won’t get anyone to their destination that much quicker.
“Studies have shown us the difference between driving the speed limit and breaking the speed limit results in a savings of seconds, not minutes, in getting to a destination,” Hackett said.
Kay said he doesn’t blame anyone for what happened, but hopes people will learn from it.
“The outcome was the best that we could hope for with everyone going home,” he said. “I’ve been told a few times that stuff like this only happens in big cities. Well, the big city is coming here. That road is busier than it’s ever been.”
“On nice sunny clear days, driving 70 mph is fine,” he said. “On other days when there’s smoke, fog, rain, snow or night, you don’t know what’s on the other side. I hope this is an eye-opener for everyone. The vehicle that hit the truck was just one of multiple vehicles that didn’t slow down.”
“When you hear cars going by and you can’t see them it’s an eerie feeling," Kay said. "Working car wrecks and traffic control is the biggest fear of any firefighter. You get in a room with them and ask how many have had near misses and all would probably raise their hands.”
The fire truck that was totaled came to Victor in 2016 from the Lockwood Fire Department that’s located just outside of Billings. It came with an angel painted on its side.
“People are kind of wondering if that angel wasn’t what protected us Saturday,” Hackett said. “Why we didn’t end up killing someone through all that, I have no clue.”