ODOT hero says rescue of SH driver was ‘instinct’

Scott Swanson

An Oregon Department of Transportation employee says he was reacting out of “instinct” when he dived into a pond along Highway 20 last week to rescue a Sweet Home man from a submerged truck crash that left the victim’s truck submerged in a pond.

Troy Elverfeld broke a window in Dean H. Stillwell’s pickup Tuesday afternoon and pulled an apparently nearly unconcious Stillwell from the truck, which had been shoved into the pond during a traffic accident.

According to Oregon State Police, the incident occurred at approximately 3:24 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, on Highway 20 just east of the Highway 26 intersection.

Eastbound traffic was stopped near milepost 7 for ODOT roadwork, when a 1996 Dodge pickup pulling a flatbed trailer loaded with hay, driven by John L. Olson, 21, of Sisters, failed to stop in time. According to OSP, Olson’s pickup crashed into the rear of a 1970 Chevrolet pickup driven by Dean H. Stillwell, 56, of Sweet Home, causing a chain-reaction crash involving three other vehicles.

After being struck, Stillwell’s pickup slammed into the back of a 2003 Dodge Caravan driven by Shirley Harrison, 81, of Albany. Stillwell’s pickup then careened across the westbound lane and off the roadway into a bordering pond where it became completely submerged, the OSP said.

Troy Elverfeld speaks to reporters on the day following his rescue of Dean Stillwell. 13.

Elverfeld, 47, of Lebanon, said he saw smoke from where he was working down the road, installing white reflector posts as part of an ODOT project.

“I heard on the flagging radio that there had been an accident,” he said. “I saw the black smoke and thought,’Oh gee, I’d better get over there and see if I can help.’”

Elverfeld said he drove the backhoe he was operating over to the site of the wreck, where he was told that a vehicle had gone into the water. He said he realized that he’d better help rescue the person or people inside.

“I knew I’d need something to break the glass,” he said. “So I grabbed a big old bar from the toolbox on the back of the backhoe. I didn’t know it was going to be me jumping in.”

No one else was making a move, though someone had called 9-1-1, he said, so he pulled off one of his boots and then realized he’d better not waste any more time.

“I’m a good swimmer. I thought I’d better get in there now, so I just jumped in with one boot on and one boot off.

“You’re thinking about things in split seconds, so you don’t think about how cold the water is or anything.”

He had to swim to where the truck was and he had to come up a few times for air before he could break the truck’s window, he said.

Stillwell, who reportedly had sustained a concussion, was initially unresponsive and it took a few dives before Elverfeld could get him out, he said.

“I got in half-way and he wouldn’t come out. I came up for air and I decided that this time I was pulling him out. He’s coming out unconscious or alive. No matter what, I’m yanking this guy out.”

He said Stillwell apparently had begun to revive and apparently had taken off his seat belt when Elverfeld went down for the third time. He was able to pull Stillwell out and get him to the surface, where another bystander had swum out to the truck and was on the roof and people on shore had thrown out a rope to pull Stillwell to shore.

Elverfeld said Stillwell was a little disoriented and told him the driver was still in the truck, but Elverfeld couldn’t find anyone else in the vehicle.

Stillwell said later that he had gotten off work at Wah Chang and was driving home, along his usual route, when he saw construction signs and stopped.

“I looked up in the rear view mirror and saw a pickup coming fast,” he said. “That’s all I remember. I kind of remember being in the ambulance and being at the hospital. I don’t remember the water.”

He said he had “a little headache” the next day but was relieved there were no more serious consequences.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Stillwell said. “Nobody was killed. That poor kid driving the hay truck feels pretty bad. But thankfully, it wasn’t any worse.”

He said he plans to track Elverfeld down and thank him.

The two other vehicles involved in the chain-reaction crash were a 2006 Kia Spectra driven by Josalyn Lawrence, 23, of Lebanon, and a 2002 Volvo commercial truck driven by Pavel Priymak, 47, of Vancouver, Wash.

Stillwell, Olson, Harrison, Lawrence and her 2-year-old son were all transported by ambulance to Albany General Hospital with minor injuries.

Priymak and a 14-year old male passenger in the Dodge Caravan were not transported to a hospital.

Olson was cited for careless driving, police said.

The highway was closed about 45 minutes in both directions before one lane was open during the scene investigation. The scene was cleared about 6 p.m.

Elverfeld said he it wasn’t the first accident he’s helped with along that stretch.

Two years ago he pulled passengers from a car that had been involved in a crash and used dirt to put out a fire that started in the car while a woman was trapped in it.

“There were 20 or 25 cars in the line but nobody had a fire extinguisher,” he said.

He attributes his reaction in those instances to “instinct” but he said credit goes to others who helped out.

“I might have been the hero the other day, but other people were doing their jobs. I consider them heroes. Somebody called 9-1-1. Somebody threw the rope out there. A lady told me where to find the pickup.”

“It sure did look like a horrible accident. I’d do it again.”