Firefighter receives honor at national conference for his action, fast thinking

The 26-year veteran prevented I-95 crash

April 25, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

It would have been a horrible wreck on Interstate 95 - leaving a trail of twisted metal, shattered glass and broken bones. An Army captain and a crew of federal emergency workers would have been among the injured.

Instead, the group watched as Anne Arundel County firefighter William "Artie" Cooper Jr. - a paramedic suddenly turned stuntman - aborted an impending chain of events and avoided a high-speed crash in a heroic act that was recognized last weekend at a national conference of emergency personnel in Dallas.

In May, Cooper was in the passenger seat of a Chevrolet Suburban hauling an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle to a training session on terrorism. The vehicle was leading a caravan of federal emergency crews on the highway in Connecticut. The driver of the Suburban passed out while Cooper was picking up a package of crackers that had fallen onto the floor.

"I looked up and saw the driver foaming at the mouth," Cooper said in a recent interview. "I jumped over the console and with my left hand pulled his leg off the gas pedal. With my other hand, I was trying to steer and pry the driver's hands off the wheel. He had death grip on it."

An instant later, Cooper was guiding the sport utility vehicle and its haul over two lanes of speeding traffic to the shoulder, where he intended to use the concrete barrier to slow down. "I wanted to skid into it but not end up heading into the oncoming traffic," he said.

The Army captain and another crew member who had been sleeping in the backseat awoke from the commotion and started screaming. But Cooper was able to reach the brake and stop the vehicle.

He pulled the driver over the console and dragged him onto the shoulder of the highway to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The driver, who was having seizures, had no pulse. "I started massaging his heart and he took a breath," Cooper said.

Other emergency workers in the caravan called an ambulance, which arrived quickly.

The driver survived, recovering from an aneurysm that caused internal bleeding. And witnesses pointed out how Cooper's quick reflexes prevented additional damage and injuries.

"I am extremely grateful for the courageous acts, excellent skills and bravery exhibited by Mr. Cooper in preventing a major catastrophe for his colleagues and for the public," Capt. Ilze Ruditis wrote in a letter to Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr. Cooper has been a safety officer and an emergency response crew member with the National Disaster Medical System - a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - for three years. He spends his vacations attending conferences - like the one this group held last weekend in Texas - and staffing events such as the Special Olympics in Alaska.

"We're always proud of employees' extracurricular activities," said Battalion Chief John M. Scholz. "When they act as heroically as Artie did in this situation, we're extremely proud."

Although Cooper has been involved in countless rescues in his nearly 26 years with the county fire department, the incident in May was one he'll never forget.

"It's not so much what I did," he said. "I didn't have a lot of time to think about it - but what amazes me is why I was there."

Cooper had been riding in another car earlier that day. When the convoy stopped at a rest area on the Maryland-Delaware border, Cooper realized the driver of the Suburban didn't have anyone in the passenger seat. "I don't know why I volunteered to ride with them," Cooper said. "Maybe God put me in the seat that day."

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