There were already about a half dozen cars pulled to the side of the highway when Dylan Henderson decided to stop. About 100 feet below, smoke billowed up from some sort of accident, though from his vantage point it was hard to say what had caused it.
“It wasn’t like a car in the ditch or something,” he remembers. “It was hard to tell if it was a train accident or a truck accident. It was a weird one, and I almost didn’t go down.”
Reflecting on it now, the Whitewater ski coach and forester says he’s glad he did. A level three first aid attendant, he was the first person on the scene with the skills to help the accident’s only victim: an Idaho truck driver who had run his semi off the edge of Highway 3 between Fernie and Cranbrook.
“He went straight off a corner and launched in the air, down over the bank, and didn’t touch down until he hit the railway tracks that were a couple hundred feet below,” says Henderson of the mid-February crash. “He hit the railway tracks nose first and it was just a complete miracle that he lived.”
The driver was able to climb out of the truck, and several other drivers had already gone down to the scene and helped him move away from the wreckage. Just in time, too.
“The truck exploded right when I arrived, as I was looking down,” Henderson says.
By the time an hour had passed “there was nothing left of it. Just some ashes and a bit of bent metal on the railway tracks.”
Though the accident was dramatic, Henderson says his patient was in surprisingly good shape, losing consciousness only once. He did, however, have a head wound, a break in one leg and there was a possibility of spinal damage from the drop.
Henderson and a med student who came down to offer help soon after cared for the man until the paramedics showed up.
“We were a good pair,” he says. “She didn’t know first aid, but she was great for doing vitals and stuff. So between the two of us we provided pretty good care for him until more tools arrived.”
Once paramedics and firefighters were on the scene, a new problem emerged: there was no way to carry the injured truck driver back up to the highway.
Members of the rescue crew arranged to have a pickup sent down the now-closed rail line, but Henderson says he and the medical team began to worry they wouldn’t be able to keep their patient warm until it showed up.
It was at that point the air ambulance arrived.
“It was just pure chance,” Henderson says, explaining the aircraft was in the area on other business and was able to transport both the driver and the paramedics to hospital in Cranbrook.
“It was like being in a TV show, just when the helicopter showed up,” he remembers.
The entire incident, which began just before 6 p.m., had taken about an hour.
This wasn’t the first time Henderson has helped out at the scene of an accident, but he admits it was one of the most dramatic incidents he’s seen. He also credits the other drivers who stopped and helped even when they didn’t know first aid.
“It was the combination of the group of us that definitely saved a life that day,” he says. “I was just a part in that.”
According to a report on the crash by the Fernie Free Press, the driver sustained a broken knee but no other significant injuries. RCMP say he has no memory of the crash, its aftermath, or what might have caused him to veer off the road.