VERNON - A group of staff cadets and instructors celebrating at a recent graduation parade in Vernon didn’t hesitate to drop what they were doing and run to help those involved in a serious car crash.
“The flags were just being marched on and we heard a loud bang,” Major Keri Winkelaar says. “We turned our heads toward the source of the noise and saw the vehicle still spinning and coming to a stop.”
The Aug. 13 crash on Highway 97, right outside the Vernon Army Base where the cadets train, happened when two vehicles collided head-on, bringing traffic on the busy road to a standstill. The collision sent three people to hospital, two of them in critical condition, and affected traffic for close to two hours. Luckily, help was on hand.
“The staff cadets started running and jumping the fence to go in and help,” Winkelaar says.
While immensely proud of their bravery and ‘automatic reaction to help’, Winkelaar felt it wasn’t safe for the three seventeen-year-old cadet sergeants and two junior officers, aged 20, to be on the highway. She also felt they weren’t entirely prepared for the severity of the accident and called them back from the scene.
“I could tell by the sound and the scene that it wouldn’t be a good situation, which is why I knew I had to get them out of there. I didn’t know the extent (of the accident) but I knew it wouldn’t be good,” she says.
After ensuring the cadets were safe, Winkelaar and a group of fellow instructors ran to the scene.
“We didn’t speak, we just moved. The adrenaline just takes over and makes you do what you need to do,” she says.
Winkelaar describes the accident scene as eery, silent and still, with ‘nobody crying, nobody talking, nobody moving.’
“It’s something you see in movies and don’t expect to see in real life,” she says.
Her colleagues, Capt. Nikki Scharf, Major Mitch Steck, and Cpl. Dave Hastings, were among the first on scene and assisted with traffic control and directing vehicles around the collision via the southbound lane. Lt. Konnor Brett conducted an initial assessment of the scene before the paramedics arrived, and assisted in traffic control after handing things off to them, Winkelaar says.
Fortunately, an ambulance and paramedics were on hand at the army camp for the parade, and were able to respond immediately to the crash. They were limited in numbers however, and while they checked the two occupants of the first vehicle, Winkelaar checked the second.
“There was a lone female trapped in the driver’s seat. A paramedic came over to look at her and realized she wasn’t as bad as the other two. I said I would remain with the female driver so they could take care of the people more seriously injured,” Winkelaar says.
She stayed with the patient for about half an hour, holding her hand, offering words of comfort, and phoning the woman’s husband and employer for her. The scene was strewn with car parts, glass and vehicle liquid running out onto the road, Winkelaar says.
“I just let her squeeze my hand as hard as she wanted,” Winkelaar says. “I just kept doing everything I could to help her and make sure she got out of this okay.”
Winkelaar watched as the occupants of the other vehicle were extricated and taken away on stretchers. Finally, it was time for her to step aside and let rescue crews use the jaws of life to free the woman.
Afterwards, Winkelaar washed the vehicle grease and glass off herself and returned to the parade to clap for the cadets.
“There was nothing else we could do,” Winkelaar says, adding she plans on connecting with the woman she spent those intense 30 minutes with to see how she’s doing.
She’s extremely proud of her colleagues, and of the cadets who didn’t hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way.
“We train them to be leaders,” she says. “When you see a situation that needs help, we train them to do whatever we can in any situation. I’m absolutely proud they saw an accident and jumped up to do what they’re trained to do.”
She believes things could have been much worse had no one been there to respond immediately.
“I’m glad it wasn’t worse and glad it wasn’t me. If it was me, I’d be so thankful there were people there to help instantly…. I think that had to be comforting for everybody,” she says. “I’m very proud of everyone who was involved and willing to go out there and put themselves at risk to take care of those other people. I hope they’re all recovering well.”
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— This story was updated at 2 p.m. Aug. 19, 2015 to correct the spelling of Lt. Konnor Brett's name.