Colt Brink is alive, no doubt, because of what four men did just a minute or two after the semi- truck he was driving plowed into the side of a railroad locomotive, and just a minute or two before the truck cab where he was trapped by mangled steel and spilled wheat went up in flames.
It happened about 3:00 pm on Thursday at the U.S. Highway 14 railroad crossing at Blunt, South Dakota.
Brink is 16 and lives in Pierre.
He remains in a Sioux Falls hospital, recovering from critical injuries that he sustained in the crash, including broken bones, according to the CaringBridge site maintained by his family members.
About noon on Sunday, his sister posted a message: “Colt’s doing A LOT better today,” which means that his wrist surgery was moved up to Monday instead of Tuesday, and he took other steps of progress, she said.
On Thursday, at mid-afternoon, he was driving a 2000 Kenworth truck tractor hauling two semi-trailers, each filled with about 800 bushels of wheat, headed east into Blunt at the end of a long hill on Highway 14.
On the west edge of Blunt, a Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern Railroad train of about 70 empty grain cars had just started crossing Highway 14, headed northwest, when the Kenworth cab slammed into the side of the second locomotive, said Blunt Fire Chief Travis Heuertz.
The collision was hard enough to knock the front axle of the locomotive off the rails and reduce the truck cab to a turned-about tangle of hardly recognizable steel.
With about 90,000 pounds of wheat, the truck rig would have weighed more than 130,000 pounds, according to a social-media post from Brink’s sister. She wrote, for “those wondering what really happened,” that he told them repeatedly on Thursday “I tried to stop, I tried to stop.”
Chief Heuertz said that RCP&E trains tend to cross there at 10 to 15 mph, partly because they are coming out of a curve that is about a half mile southeast of the crossing.
There is no barrier or crossing arm but the red, flashing lights mounted on the cross-buck railroad signs were working on Thursday, Heuertz said.
Chris Schafer, tax equalization director for Hamlin County, was driving some ways behind Brink, returning to his Hayti home near Watertown from a tax assessors’ meeting in Pierre.
Schafer, 42, grew up in Ottertail, Minnesota, about 70 miles southeast of Fargo. He’s been a firefighter for 25 years and an EMT for 12 years, he said.
Schafer came up to the wreckage, parking some distance back.
“We saw the train stopped there and the tractor trailer up against it,” he told the Capital Journal.
He could see smoke and flames in the cab that was twisted back facing nearly west and wrecked.
“It was just, I had to get there. For one thing, to put the fire out. And the second priority was to get the kid out.”
The only others at the scene at the moment were the two railroad engineers, uninjured, who had jumped out of the two locomotives with fire extinguishers, Schafer said.
The call came in to the Blunt Rural Fire Department about 3:02 p.m., Heuertz said. But the train itself, stopped with the two locomotives on the north side of the highway, blocked off the town from the crash scene. Heuertz and his firefighters were forced to find an improvised route north and west out of town, using a farmer’s driveway and driving across a field, to get to the scene.
Where, meanwhile, Schafer and the two railroad engineers were working.
The fire extinguishers weren’t up to the job of putting the fire out, but they made a big difference, Schafer said.
As Schafer started stepping up to get the cab door open, a Blunt firefighter who had scrambled between train cars to get to the scene, joined him.
“All I could smell was smoke and the heat,” Schafer said.
The wheat had filled the cab, nearly burying the boy and helping entrap him.
“The door miraculously opened up and grain poured out and we could pull him right out of there. Everything, the timing, was perfect. If we had been (driving) a minute ahead or a minute behind, that window of opportunity would have been gone,” Schafer said.
“If not for the guys getting out of the locomotive with the fire extinguishers and halfway suppressing the spreading flames, we wouldn’t even have had the window.”
The Highway Patrol reported that Brink was wearing a seat belt.
Schafer didn’t see the seat belt fastened on Brink, but he said it would have been impossible for him to see for sure how the belt was unfastened or removed in the mess of the wreckage.
The rescue of Brink was quick. The emergency training of Schafer and the Blunt firefighter -who wished to remain anonymous - played a key role in it.
The 16-year-old was obviously critically injured but was conscious, “which is always a big player in triage,” Schafer said. “He mentioned he was asthmatic. That’s a trigger for airway management. I was glad he was talking to us, his eyes were open and focused.”
Schafer and the Blunt firefighter quickly had Brink down on the ground at a safe distance from the burning cab.
Schafer said that within a minute or two after they pulled Brink out of the wheat-filled cab, it was engulfed in fire.
Heuertz said that by the time his truck got to the scene, Brink was on the ground being tended to by Schafer and the Blunt firefighter.
The AMR ambulance was at the scene only about four minutes before it was speeding away with Brink to Avera St. Mary’s in Pierre, Heuertz said.
About 25 volunteer firefighters from Blunt, Harrold and Onida put out the fire and worked the scene, helping detour traffic from east of Blunt until the scene was cleaned up and the train moved about 11:00 pm on Thursday, Heuertz said.
Pierre firefighters responded for the first hour or so. Hughes County deputies waved traffic off Highway 14 at the intersection with U.S. Highway 83, three miles west of Blunt.
Brink was airlifted on Friday to a Sioux Falls hospital, mostly for precautionary reasons, according to his family’s CaringBridge postings.
The Highway Patrol reported that charges are pending against Brink.
A friend of Schafer’s, who accompanied him from the Pierre meeting, posted about it on social media, saying he was a hero.
Schafer was matter-of-fact about it and curious how a reporter had gotten his name.
“Well, I’ll say we were in the right place at the right time,” Schafer said.
He told Brink more than once that afternoon, “that he was the luckiest kid in Blunt right now,” Schafer said.
“For one thing, he was fortunate to make it out of a crash like that, and two, he had a second chance to get out in that one-minute window. It works out sometimes and sometimes they don’t.”
Chief Heuertz said that the truck hit the locomotive just a few feet in front of the tank carrying thousands of gallons of diesel fuel.
“Thank God the (diesel) tank on the locomotive didn’t spill. It could have been a lot worse,” Schafer said.
His EMT training kicked in and was useful, Schafer said.
But, he went beyond it.
“If I tell you that’s the kind of thing we train for, I wouldn’t be honest. If we train for a situation where a semi-truck piles into the side of a locomotive with several gallons of diesel fuel on board, we wouldn’t recommend anyone going inside of 500 feet of that,” Schafer said. “Obviously, you need to step outside of your parameters and protocols. If I did what we were trained to do, the kid wouldn’t have been alive.”