A profound, life-changing chain of events reveals that heroes exist amongst us at Waynesburg University.
Nine recent nursing graduates and an associate professor of nursing became heroes in the eyes of many when, after stopping to rescue a man struggling to escape from his overturned SUV as numerous vehicles swerved by him, an unanticipated turn of events forced them to rescue each other.
“The students rose to the occasion and recognized that life is a gift from God,” said Nancy Mosser, chair of the Nursing Department at Waynesburg University. “The experience altered their lives and their outlook on life.”
It all started when the nurses-in-training followed their calling to serve and to heal.
In the morning darkness of February 20, 2012, an SUV come to a stop on its side with its roof facing on-coming traffic, blocking the left lane of I-79S in Perry Township, Pa.
Derek Hartzog, 21, of Washington, Pa., had fallen asleep at the wheel.
On his way to Morgantown, W.Va., for clinical nursing studies, Zachary Sargent witnessed the accident. He immediately pulled over, called 911 to report the accident and ran to Hartzog's vehicle to help. Within seconds, other senior nursing students also traveling to clinical came upon the scene and stopped to offer assistance. Those students included Cami Abernethy, Alissa Boyle, Joshua Brewer, Christina Hecker, Chelsea Knepp, Noah Pust, Clayton Reiber and Rebekah Reyes.
“Derek couldn't get out of his vehicle,” Sargent said. “I had to pull him out through a hole in the windshield.”
After Hartzog was pulled to safety, the students assessed his medical condition.
“I felt relief in knowing that the victim was healthy physically, and all we had to do was calm him down,” Abernethy said. “Unfortunately, at that time, we did not know we were standing on an overpass.”
When associate professor of nursing Dr. Sara Clutter, also on her way to clinical, arrived at the scene, she pulled her vehicle to the right side of the road beyond the accident and the students and she, too, dialed 911.
“I was talking with the dispatcher when I heard someone yell, ‘Get out of the way! The truck is going to hit us!'” Dr. Clutter said.
The students were helping Hartzog contact his family when they heard the same warning that a truck was approaching in the left lane – the lane in which they were standing between the disabled vehicle and the on-coming tractor trailer.
“I saw lights coming right at us, and I was able to see that it was a tractor trailer,” Abernethy said. “The truck was not slowing down, and I knew I would be killed if I didn't move.”
In the seconds that followed, each student had to make instantaneous decisions to save their own lives. Sargent grabbed Knepp's arm and pulled her to safety further down the road past Dr. Clutter's vehicle. Abernethy, Boyle, Brewer and Hartzog jumped over the barrier at the edge of the left lane.
It was not until that moment, in the darkness of the morning, that they realized the accident had occurred on a bridge. Assuming their jump over the cement barrier would land them safely on the shoulder of the road, Abernethy, Boyle and Hartzog instead fell off the bridge some 40 to 50 feet to the ground below.
“The fall felt like forever,” Abernethy said. “I had no idea when I was going to hit the ground since my eyes were to the night sky.”
As Brewer jumped, he realized he was on a bridge and was able to grasp the barrier before falling.
Pust, also realizing he was about to jump off of a bridge, straddled the barrier instead and was then able to pull Brewer back over the barrier to safety. The tractor trailer pushed Hartzog's vehicle about 10 feet, coming to a stop inches from Pust's leg.
“All I remember is that I was about to jump over with the others when something told me to stop and just straddle the side,” Pust said. “I have to thank God for giving me that thought.”
As the shock set in, the uninjured students ran down the steep, muddy embankment to the roadside below on which their friends and Hartzog had fallen. The three were lying in a bed of silt and briars, their limbs tangled with each other's. No one was moving.
“We thought they were dead,” Sargent said.
The students got to work helping Abernethy, Boyle and Hartzog, and after a few seconds that felt like an eternity, Sargent returned to the highway to help Dr. Clutter down the hill.
“Dr. Clutter is a very calming person,” Sargent said. “She had complete confidence in us, and that made us more confident that we could handle the situation.”
After the students gave their professor a quick assessment of Abernethy, Boyle and Hartzog's conditions, Dr. Clutter took the lead and began matching the students' skill sets with the needs of the three injured.
“The students remained calm and filled their roles effectively,” she said. “They used therapeutic communication to keep their classmates calm and unmoving, held their hands and did everything they could to make them comfortable.”
From Reyes' nursing bag, the students distributed gloves and gauze to those working on the injured while residents of a nearby house provided towels, blankets and flashlights.
“Caring for my friends in the freezing cold mud was unlike anything I have ever experienced,” Pust said. “I knew what to do and how to do it. Although I was still in shock and terrified from the whole ordeal, I was able to think clearly, and my classmates and I were able to provide the correct care to the injured.”
When the police and ambulances arrived, paramedics took over the care of the victims.
“I didn't even hear the sirens,” Dr. Clutter said. “I had a mission, and I was completely caught up in that mission.”
Abernethy said she was blessed that her classmates were present.
“They knew exactly what to do to care for us, mentally and physically, until the paramedics arrived,” she said.
Abernethy suffered fractured vertebrae and a rod has been surgically inserted into her back. She is at home recovering from her injuries.
“Right now, my health is better than I could have ever imagined,” Abernethy said. “Faith has played a huge rule in my recovery. It was an act of God that we all lived through the fall, and that made me realize that it wasn't my time to go. I have yet to complete what I was put on this earth to do, and that day proved it to me.”
Boyle suffered a spinal cord injury that has left her without sensory and motor function of her lower limbs. In addition, her fractured vertebrae were stabilized by the insertion of a rod into her back. Following two surgeries and a stay in a rehabilitation facility, she is at home learning to walk again.
“The way we were raised by our parents and then the way we were shaped in Waynesburg University's nursing program helped us to make the decisions we made that day,” Abernethy said. “If I had to relive that day, I would still stop.”