It’s not always a squad car, fire truck or ambulance that comes to the rescue -- sometimes, an everyday hero shows up in a big orange truck.
Jeff Holte has been driving a snowplow for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) for 14 years and one of the most memorable moments of his career happened just a few weeks ago on Interstate 94, near Evansville.
The afternoon of February 20, Holte was eastbound on I-94 clearing snow and spreading sand. Minutes later, he was digging a man out of a vehicle packed with snow.
Here’s what happened: “It was really warm that day, but then, all of a sudden, we got conditions that plow drivers call ‘blow ice.’ The road temps warmed up, the wind started blowing, there was drifting snow and it started sticking on the road. When the road cooled down, the traffic lane turned to ice. The road went from perfect driving conditions to glare ice in a matter of a short time,” he said.
About a half-mile ahead of him, Holte said he watched an eastbound car lose control, roll into the ditch and slide on its rooftop.
“What I didn’t know at the time it happened is that [the impact of the crash] broke out the back window of the car, so now you have a car doing 50 miles per hour, upside down, going backwards into the ditch. At that speed, it scooped all that snow and packed the interior full of snow.”
Holte pulled his plow over, radioed the State Patrol and headed over to the crash.
“A gal got out of the car… she came running up out of the ditch pretty frantic. She was screaming that her boyfriend was still trapped in the car packed with snow and he was having trouble breathing because the car was so full of snow.”
Holte sent the young woman to sit in his truck.
The boyfriend was lodged in the driver’s side of the car, which was buried in snow.
“I could not get those doors open,” he said.
Holte tried getting in through the front passenger side, but couldn’t get it open.
He did finally get in through one of the back doors and he started digging.
“It was full of snow so I started digging out with my hands between the bucket seats and I was talking to him to be sure he was getting air in there,” he explained.
“It was still light outside but it was pretty dark in the vehicle; it was almost like being in a snow fort or something.
“I was digging snow out along the passenger seat, then released the recline button to get into the front seat compartment.
“I dug snow away from him and saw his arms were trapped up above his head. I just continued to dig more snow away until I was able to belly crawl in and get in far enough to get his seat belt released and get him pulled out of the vehicle.
“I brought him back to the truck, got him inside and we waited for the troopers,” he said.
Other than being cold, the couple escaped the rollover crash without injury.
As they waited for the State Patrol to arrive, Holte said they warmed up and chatted a bit.
“They were pretty thankful somebody was there to help them out,” he said.
He didn’t get their names.
“It was kind of a wild few minutes there when it happened. I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time to help them,” he said.
When asked if the word “hero” has been tossed his way, he said, “It has been, but I didn’t do anything anyone else wouldn’t have done if they would’ve come across the same situation.”
Holte, who lives in Garfield, works out of MnDOT’s Evansville truck station.