Heroic actions by local couple rescued several young lives
A River Falls couple is being credited with saving the lives of two teens trapped beneath an overturned Chevrolet S-10 sport utility vehicle Saturday morning.
The SUV with four boys inside had turned west onto County Road M. That was right into the path of a westbound newer model Honda Hybrid.
The collision sent the Honda skidding off into a farm field. The truck spun, rolled over and clipped off a power pole before coming to rest on its passenger side.
After the crash, unsupported power lines drooped across two adjacent roads.
As this happened, Scott and Mary Ripley were on a leisurely drive to Spring Valley to look for furniture. Scott noticed a wisp of smoke "like a campfire" in the ditch a mile ahead.
Coming closer he could see a vehicle on its side with a youth hanging from the window waving for help. All the vehicle's windows were shattered.
While this was bad enough, Scott's gaze turned to the flames coming from the engine.
He and Mary were so riveted by the dramatic scene they failed to notice a sagging electric line that scraped the roof of their own Trailblazer SUV.
Scott braked, got out, stepped around the wires and ran to the crash. Mary used her cell phone to call 911.
All four boys in the SUV had either been thrown out or partially ejected. Two were trapped beneath the vehicle in a ditch filled with deep snow, according to St. Croix County Sheriff Dennis Hillstead.
Scott recalls everything that followed as though it transpired in slow motion.
One blond boy was walking around while another lay face down in the snow, parallel to the truck.
Two other boys were only partially visible beneath the SUV with their heads and parts of shoulders showing.
Flames shot up from the bottom of the engine. Scott scooped and flung snow at the blaze Meanwhile, the blond youth had gone to check on the Honda's female driver.
Scott tried to rock the SUV back and forth to free the two boys trapped beneath. The effort didn't work. He had to be careful the pair weren't crushed by the motion.
Scott shouted for his wife to come help. Three times she managed to connect with the sheriff's dispatcher before she was able to give a complete description of the horrific accident.
Now the fire had spread to the truck's passenger area. One of the boys shouted in pain as the flames burned his leg.
This time, while Scott and Mary lifted, the third boy pulled at his friend's arms and both were able to shimmy through the snow, around the truck's frame and get away.
Three of the teens quickly scurried across the town road, fearful the truck would explode.
The fourth, presumably driver Dustin Robey, was unable to walk. Scott and Mary carefully dragged him by his shoulders north toward the damaged Honda.
Soon a neighbor, investigating the cause of the power outage, pulled up in his pickup truck. Robey was laid down in the truck bed.
Mary retrieved a blanket from their vehicle to cover him. By then, the SUV was engulfed by the fire.
"Because of their efforts, three young people survived," Hillstead later said.
Scott later told River Falls Ambulance Service Director Jeff Rixmann that he and his wife "just did what anyone else would have done" in the situation.
According to a deputy's report, just six minutes elapsed between that first 911 call and the deputy's arrival on the scene. Scott Ripley couldn't say how long the rescue took.
"It's kind of weird because everything appeared to be in slow motion," he said Monday. "I could probably tell you just how many scoops of snow I threw on that fire."
The driver of the Honda, Linda D. Schumacher, 43, rural Baldwin, was airlifted from the scene about 11 a.m. - more than an hour after the collision. Schumaker's condition was listed as fair at Regions Hospital as of noon Tuesday.
The accident occurred at the junction of County Road M and 170th Street on a hilly crest in the town of Pleasant Valley, some eight miles east of River Falls
A passenger in the SUV's front seat - Nathan J. Matzek, 16, no address available - was transported by Hudson Ambulance to Regions in St. Paul. A Regions spokeswoman said he was no longer a patient as of Monday afternoon.
The SUV driver, Dustin A. Robey, 16, 130 Liberty Rd., a sophomore at River Falls High School, and two backseat passengers were all taken by ambulance to River Falls Area Hospital.
The others were Matthew A. Miller, 16, N8210 970th St., and Brandon B. Harrison, 15, 1224 County Road M.
All four of the boys attend the local high school.
Injuries included broken bones and burns, according to EMS crews as they spoke to waiting hospital staff that morning.
On Tuesday Dr. Dan Zimmerman of River Falls acknowledged that two patients were treated in the local emergency room and released on Saturday. A third individual was treated and referred to another facility.
A St. Croix sheriff's deputy issued citations to Robey for failure to yield, failure to wear a seat belt, and for operating outside the provisions of a probationary driver's license. Wisconsin law prohibits young drivers with less than nine months experience from carrying multiple underage passengers unless an adult is present or it involves a school-related event, said Hillstead.
Rixmann used the word "difficult" to describe challenges his responders and firefighters faced at the crash scene.
"We were dealing with downed power lines and working right next to a burning vehicle," he said.
When dispatched about 9:40 a.m., deputies and EMT's were advised of a two-vehicle collision with victims said to be trapped and one vehicle on fire. Smoke was visible for several miles as rescuers approached.
Arriving, authorities found a burning sport utility vehicle in a ditch off the northwest corner of the intersection. The passenger car sat about 30 feet north, its driver still trapped behind the wheel.
Power lines lay across both the town and county roads, effectively blocking vehicle access from two directions.
As fire trucks and ambulances continued to roll up, all rescuers were directed to assist with extricating the victims while two firefighters stood guard with a hose near the van, waiting for the injured to be moved.
Rixmann said freeing Schumaker wasn't particularly difficult but crews were concerned about the chance that electricity could be conducted through snow and water. Thus, firefighters delayed extinguishing the van until the last victim was removed.
Only after the van's fuel tank burst did firefighters douse the charred vehicle with foam and water.
A slight northwest wind helped blow heat and smoke away from the scene.
The first of three linemen from St. Croix Electric Cooperative arrived about 11:10 a.m. to deal with downed power pole and lines. Electrical service was restored to about 25 customers within four hours of the accident, said supervisor Larry Gilbertson.
Both vehicles were removed by personnel from Jerry's Towing in River Falls.
The Ripleys will be nominated to receive a special heroism award presented each year by the River Falls Ambulance service, Rixmann said.