The Glenn Highway was deserted when Wasilla resident Frank Kirk and his 15-year-old stepson Trayton Cohen came upon snow, rocks and ice sprayed across the highway while hauling logs across the Matanuska River. It was just before 4:30 on the morning of March 22, below freezing and pitch black. When Kirk saw a large section of guard rail peeled back, he decided to take a closer look.
"I looked down over the edge and saw tail lights and hazard lights," he said. "I shut off my truck. I wanted to be able to hear if someone's yelling, and walked out to the edge of the guard rail (and yelled if anyone was down there). Some guy answered 'Help help I'm f-ing cold! I need blankets! I'm cold get me out of here!'"
Once Kirk, a volunteer firefighter and rescue technician for the Central Matanuska-Susitna Fire Department, determined Marcus Smith, 56, of Ninilchik was by himself, he and Trayton sped a mile and a half back to Kirk's in-laws, called 911 dispatch in Palmer and gave them a scene update and status report on the patient, retrieved a sleeping bag and returned to the scene of the accident.
Back at the scene, Kirk and Trayton slid down a 40-degree snow- and ice-covered embankment to reach Smith.
"I had just had my knee rebuilt in January and it was pretty tough to walk down that hill," Kirk said. "But we hauled the sleeping bag down there and I checked out the scene a little further to make sure he was the only one in the vehicle. He was probably 75 feet from the highway down the embankment. We just wandered our way down there with one flashlight."
According to a press release issued March 22 by the Alaska State Troopers, Smith was traveling southbound on the Glenn Highway when he lost control of his 2003 Dodge pickup and drove through approximately 80 feet of guardrail near Mile 102. Smith's vehicle left the east side of the roadway and rolled over twice before coming to rest approximately 100 feet away.
Medics from Victory, Palmer and Sutton responded and stabilized Smith before he was airlifted to Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. According to the press release, Smith was treated for back and neck injuries.
Smith was extremely hypothermic when Kirk and Trayton came upon him with the sleeping bag, Kirk said. There was a lot of blood, but Kirk said Smith answered him when he spoke and was able to move about. From what Kirk could see, Smith had a laceration across the top of his scalp, but he was coherent and conscious.
Emergency personnel arrived at approximately 5:30 a.m., Kirk said, and were able to stabilize the victim and extricate him from the vehicle. Trayton helped medics maneuver a rescue sled up the embankment.
"I couldn't carry him with my knee being bad," he said "I says (to Trayton) 'OK look, this is what you need to do. Those guys are going to handle all the weight. I want you to get on the front end of the rescue sled and put a safety rope on the front. You're going to be the guy that keeps him from sliding back down the hill.' He acted like a true Boy Scout and took on the responsibility. He was awesome help, I couldn't ask more out of a 15-year-old."
In recognition of Kirk's actions and the actions of his stepson, Trooper Alfred Borrego of Detachment B in Palmer sent him a letter of Commendation. By comforting Smith, providing emotional support and keeping him warm, Kirk likely saved his life, Borrego wrote.
"The temperature at the scene was approximately 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Given the total circumstances, the location of the wreckage, combined with the victim's injuries and the very cold temperature on scene, I am reasonably confident that your initial inquiry, along with your personal actions and efforts, resulted in the victim's survival and avoided an otherwise grim outcome," the letter said.
When asked what it was that made him stop, Kirk said the amount of debris on a road that was empty didn't make sense. With his emergency training as a volunteer fire fighter and rescue technician, Kirk says helping the public is in his blood.
"If there's something I can do in an emergency situation, I'll be there. That's just the kind of stuff I like to do," he said. "I couldn't have done it without Trayton though, that's for sure."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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