Into the fire: Galax officer rescues driver in I-77 crash

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On his way to a meeting about emergency communications, a Galax police officer went into a blazing crash on I-77 to help the driver trapped inside.

By April Wright, Reporter


As a tractor-trailer burst into flames on Interstate 77 in Wythe County on Aug. 16, witness Brenda Marrah described the scene as something from an action movie.
But she had never been close to the scene of an accident.
Marrah, who is Galax’s grants administrator, was traveling with Galax Police Capt. James Cox on their way to a meeting in Wytheville when they came to a stop in traffic and witnessed smoke rising from a tractor-trailer a ways ahead, near mile marker 25 northbound.
“From a citizen’s standpoint, all I could think about was being late to our meeting when our car came to a stop,” said Marrah, having no idea of what was going on up ahead. “But James immediately jumped into action.”
He knew something was wrong, she said. Cox turned on his flashing lights on his unmarked vehicle and drove over the flaming, scattered debris.
“You could see flames from the tractor-trailer, probably about 20 or 30 feet of flames,” said Marrah. “The whole thing was just engulfed in flames.”
He jumped out of the car, grabbed a radio to communicate with dispatch, along with a first-aid kit, and ran to assist the driver of the tractor-trailer, who was slouching against the guardrail.
The driver, 62-year-old Victor Thomas of Winston-Salem, N.C., had sideswiped another tractor-trailer, causing the tractor-trailer to catch fire.
While the driver of the rear-ended tractor-trailer, Gabriel Rodriguez, 35, of Orlando, Fla., didn’t suffer any injuries in the crash, he had climbed out of the burning tractor-trailer, receiving burns along his back and legs.
“While all I could do was pray, James kicked into high gear,” said Marrah.
Cox knew exactly what to do, applying pressure to a burst artery in the victim’s leg until medical responders arrived, said Marrah.
“It’s amazing the unsung heroes like James that walk among us,” said Marrah. “James reacted instantly. The city is fortunate to have someone as talented as he is.”
Marrah said about 40-some first responders were on scene that day, including Cox.
“Sometimes, we take for granted what our first responders do,” said Marrah. “Sometimes, we don’t realize the things they do for us.”
Thomas was airlifted to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. He has been released and charged with reckless driving.

In an odd coincidence, the meeting that Cox and Marrah were on their way to was directly related to another I-77 traffic accident and emergency services.
The meeting was to discuss the Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant — $1.5 million from the Department of Homeland Security that would allow emergency responders of Southwest Virginia localities to correspond with one another. Cox was instrumental in obtaining the grant, said Marrah.
This grant came as a result of the multi-car accident that occurred on I-77 in Carroll County in 2010. During the accident, responders from North Carolina and Virginia localities were unable to communicate with one another because each agency’s radios operate on different frequencies.
This grant will help Southwest Virginia localities to purchase portable gateways that will allow first responders to communicate with each other.
“When James and I had to present our grant application in Richmond, James was the first to speak,” said Marrah. “He blew them away. They had $6 million to pass out to agencies last year, and we got $1.5 million with our grant application.”