Partially paralyzed tow truck driver honored for ice storm rescue


December 06, 1993

It looked like just another abandoned car on the Beltway until the blanket in the back seat moved.

The worst ice storm in decades had descended upon the region. The sleet and freezing rain caused hundreds of traffic accidents. Morning rush hour was a frozen quagmire with cars slipping and sliding out of control.

Stephen D. Rhine Sr. was responding to a call on the Beltway's inner loop near Providence Road when he saw that crucial sign of life in the back of an ice-crusted Chevy on the opposite side of the highway.

He left the abandoned car he had been working on, drove to the next exit and doubled back so he could investigate.

Mr. Rhine approached the Chevy and tapped on the window.

"Do you need help?" he yelled.

There was no response and he banged on the window again.

"Do you need help?"

"Yes," a muffled voice finally replied.

A pregnant woman with a 10-month-old infant at home, Mary Kaifer of Timonium had been stuck there all night. She was shivering and frightened and a little bit groggy after spending nearly eight hours in her car.

L When Mr. Rhine opened the door, she started crying with joy.

"He's the only one who would stop and help me," says Ms. Kaifer, recalling the Dec. 28, 1992 incident. "I had spun out and couldn't get the car back around. It was awful."

Two weeks ago, Mr. Rhine received the Towman Commendation, an award presented by American Towman Magazine and

Emergency Road Service, Inc. in recognition of "courageous professionalism in the endeavor to save a human life."

It was a proud moment for the Cockeysville man, who received the award before 1,400 of his peers at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"I guess I drive a tow truck because I basically enjoy helping people," says Mr. Rhine, 39, a father of two. "Nobody does it because it's an easy job or the hours are short.

"You're going to get soaked in the rain or have gravel kicked in your face. That's just the way it is."

Mr. Rhine's career path was never without obstacles. Twenty years ago, he broke his back as a passenger in a teen-age drunk-driving accident. The driver was killed.

His legs are paralyzed from the knees down in front, and from the waist down in back. He walks with the aid of crutches, and is able to drive his truck without any adaptations.

But it took a court fight with the state of Maryland to get an unrestricted driver's license. It was just one more challenge to overcome.

"Most people wonder why someone as disabled as I am would want to be a tow truck operator," he says. "Sometimes, it's a help. I don't try to walk down steep hills covered with ice and snow. I just sit and slide down with my cable."

His wife, Laura, says his determination has long been a part of his make-up, but was strengthened by his deep religious convictions.

"He's an extremely thorough person," she says. "He takes his work seriously and he wants to be the best he can be."

Mr. Rhine grew up along Interstate 83 -- literally. His family's home in Sparks had a view of the highway, including the occasional accident.

Mr. Rhine has dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult for him to read. As a youngster, other kids called him slow and stupid. It was only as an adult that his dyslexia was diagnosed.

Recently, he completed a correspondence course from the University of Georgia, certifying him in light tow truck duty. It required that he read over 500 pages of material. He is very proud of that.

On the wall of his basement office, a sign carries the slogan, "Winners Never Quit." It's one of his favorite sayings.

After more than two decades of work, Mr. Rhine has gone from tow truck driver at a gas station to owner of a small business, Rhine Towing Inc. The company has four black and yellow trucks, including one that allows him to pick up a car without ever leaving the driver's seat.

Sometimes, Mr. Rhine drives area highways on weekends looking for disabled cars. He calls it going on patrol.

"Adversity's made me appreciate what it's like for people who get stranded in their cars, that feeling of helplessness," he says. "If I could, I'd do it for free. It would certainly cut down on the paperwork."

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