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In the line of fire

Monday, August 23, 2004

Firemen survey the smoldering fifth wheel horse trailer and Pontiac Bonneville involved in an accident on SR 46 Aug. 8, that claimed the life of one Clay County resident. Two passengers in the trailer were pulled to safety by a family member and an off duty police officer.

Law enforcement personnel, like people in many occupations, seem to be on call even when they're not officially on duty. On the job, Terry Skaggs is used to helping at accident scenes. The 34-year-old Clay City Town Marshal has been trained to assess then assist as needed to secure life and property as efficiently and safely as possible.

But even a trained professional is never sure how he might react to an unexpected crisis when he's off duty. Skaggs was thrust into that situation Aug. 8, and because of his actions two lives were saved.

The Center Point resident was on his way home with a truck load of kids about 5 p.m. that Sunday. He'd just picked up a friend of his 13-year-old daughter to take with them to church. In the truck with Skaggs were his other daughters ages 9 and 7, his 15-year-old nephew and the daughter's 13-year-old friend.

He was traveling east on SR 46 and had just passed the Dietz Lake entrance when suddenly he saw an accident happen about a quarter mile ahead of him.

"I saw a big horse trailer coming west on 46 down the road on its side with a lot of debris flying all over the place," Skaggs said.

He pulled off the road making sure his extended cab truck was parked in a safe area. Leaving the air conditioning running, he told the kids to remain in the car and lock themselves in. As he exited his vehicle, he said to his children, "Daddy's going to see if he can help anybody."

A neighbor had already called 911. When Skaggs got to the scene, he saw a vehicle fully engulfed in flames under the front sleeper/storage section of a fifth wheel horse trailer. He assumed it was the vehicle that had been pulling the trailer. He tried to get to it to see if anyone was inside and if he could help. But it was too hot to get close.

He heard some banging noises coming from the top of the trailer. Skaggs assumed it was the horses. He didn't know at the time that there were people in the trailer, too.

Then he saw a Dodge Ram 3500 truck about 15 yards west of the accident scene in a corn field.

He realized that the Ram had been pulling the trailer but had broken loose, going out of control, after being hit. The vehicle under the trailer was the car that had hit the truck. Skaggs could not tell that the charred Pontiac Bonneville burning beneath the trailer's sleeper section had been red in color.

Skaggs saw the driver of the Ram jump out of the truck. He appeared disoriented and was bleeding from his head. He came running, frantically, toward the trailer, and suddenly he recognized Skaggs.

"My God, Terry, Mary Jo and Cody are in there," he yelled.

Skaggs realized the man was Richard Bowers, his wife's uncle.

With the trailer on its side, its door was to the ground and a side window in the sleeper was facing skyward. Bower climbed up on the trailer and kicked open the window. The burning car was directly under the sleeper section where Bower's family was located.

After a weekend of camping and horseback riding, the weary campers, Mary Jo Bowers, 38, and son Cody Bowers, 14, were resting in the trailer on a mattress.

They had both been asleep when the Pontiac hit the passenger side rear of the Ram in front of the wheel bed. They were just realizing what had happened.

By this time the heat was getting intense. The inside was full of smoke and flames were breaking into the trailer. Mary Jo and Cody were on top of the mattress which was burning at the edges.

That's probably what caused the heavy smoke in the trailer. But the mattress, also, may have helped save their lives. It cushioned them on impact and possibly insulated them from some of the heat.

But Skaggs knew they were still in grave danger if they didn't get out of the hot, smoldering, oven-like trailer soon.

Tomorrow: Skaggs helps a husband rescue his family.

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