JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDS, Alaska. --
A winter hunting trip in the extreme North turned into a lifesaving opportunity in the blink of an eye for two Airmen from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
Nov. 2, 2013, was a cold night, even by Alaska standards: 7-below temperatures with a 35-below wind chill factor. Master Sgts. David Barber and Morgan Cabaniss, 673d Security Forces Squadron, were on the tail end of a long drive up the Dalton Highway -- known locally as “Haul Road” -- to join four friends in a caribou hunt. By 11 p.m., the sergeants were about a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and a couple of hours from their rendezvous point when Cabaniss noticed something wrong.
“We were going over Atigun Pass when we came up on a trucker,” Cabaniss said. “He was going really slowly, and I could see his tail lights reflecting off the road behind him. I had just told Dave that the road must be really slick when the truck started to jackknife. We could see his tail lights and his headlights both pointing back at us!”
Barber explained what happened next: “There was a turn in the road ahead of him, but he was jackknifed and slid right over the edge of the road and hit a snow bank. The truck came to rest with the cab in the snow bank and the back tires of the trailer on the road. But he was right at the edge of about a 600-foot drop.
“That snow was the only thing between him and the drop.”
Barber stopped their vehicle about 80 yards from the wrecked semi, concerned they might join the driver in a long skid down the icy, treacherous road.
While Barber quickly began putting on heavy winter gear that had been too bulky to drive with, Cabaniss sprang into action, running toward the accident.
“I just did it; just went,” Cabaniss said. “I didn’t really think about it. And when I got to the edge of the road and looked down the embankment, I saw the door of the cab propped open. The trucker was wedged between the door and the side of his vehicle.”
Barber said his friend’s next words made the danger clear.
“We’ve gotta get him out of here! The truck may go down!” Cabaniss shouted.
So Cabaniss went over the edge of the road and found himself in waist-deep snow without even hitting a solid surface below. He half-swam his way to the cab and helped the dazed and injured trucker out. Unfortunately, the trucker had not been fully geared up against the elements while driving, and the violent impact had tossed all the gear around the damaged cab.
“He was freaking out. He only had jeans and a T-shirt on, and had managed to grab a boot and a tennis shoe when he came out of the cab,” Cabaniss said. “And he appeared shocked ... he kind of froze up on me.”
Aside from the trucker’s delayed ability to move, Cabaniss realized he would soon literally freeze up, based on the elements and lack of shoes and proper clothing. In addition, there was still a very real possibility the truck would slide off the drop, taking them both with it to their doom.
“I told him the truck might go, and that got him moving a bit,” Cabaniss said. “So I helped pull him back through that deep snow and then we got him back to our vehicle to warm up. We put a jacket on him and gave him water.”
Barber said the pair then drove about 10 miles back down the road, where they’d noticed a highway maintenance station with a pay phone.
Cell phone service was non-existent in the remote area.
The trucker managed to dial a few numbers and they put out some calls on a citizen’s band radio, but no one answered in either case. About 35 minutes later, a Department of Transportation safety official finally came by the station and picked up the driver.
It was the last the master sergeants saw of the man whose life they’d just saved, but they have been in contact with his employer and learned the driver is already back out on the road.
“We found out this guy was one of the most experienced truckers operating in the area,” Cabaniss said. “That fact, plus the fact that besides us, no one else would have come by for 45 minutes or more, really made me realize that in Alaska, you have to always be ready to take care of yourself. You can’t always just run outside and yell for help or make a phone call. His truck was not running due to the wreck. In those temperatures, he probably wouldn’t have lasted the 45 minutes until someone else came by, especially not being dressed for the weather.”
Prepare for the Worst
- Barber said the experience reinforced the need to dress properly, have all emergency supplies, and be ready and able to help yourself or others if things go badly out there.
- Cabaniss said he's been up that route many times before and has never seen something like this happen, which could lead to a false sense of safety and security.
- "You just can't get complacent here," he said.