Flames leapt nearly 5 feet high from the engine of the armored truck as Kurtis Brown worked desperately to pry open the driver’s door with his claw hammer to free two men trapped inside.
“I knew I didn’t have much time,” said Brown, a staking technician for Southwest Electric Cooperative in Missouri. “If I didn’t get that door open in the next 30 to 45 seconds, it was going to be too late. I would have had to back away. And I couldn’t imagine living with that.”
As Brown pulled from the outside and the passenger kicked furiously from inside, the door finally gave way and the two men jumped out, just moments before the entire cab was engulfed in flames.
“I almost met my maker that day,” said Leslie Powers, 47, who was driving the armored truck when he lost control of it on a windy rural road and smashed head-on into a tree in the front yard of a home. “If it hadn’t been for Kurtis, I would have for sure.”
Brown had just finished eating lunch in his service truck and was driving on Route J north of Highway 54 in Camden County on May 27 when a woman motorist flagged him down and pointed him to the accident scene. She called 911 while he ran back to his truck and grabbed a fire extinguisher and a hammer.
The diesel-fueled fire proved too much for Brown’s 5-pound extinguisher, so he ran to the passenger side door and tried to pull it open. When that didn’t work, he used the hammer to try to break the window to give the men a way to escape. But glass on an armored truck is made to withstand an attack from anyone trying to steal its contents, and Brown couldn’t break through.
“When the passenger told me it was an armored truck, my heart just sank,” Brown said. “I wasn’t sure I could get them out.”
Unable to force the passenger door open, Brown ran to the driver’s door and began to hammer the mangled metal to get to a place where he could pry. Powers was bleeding and had suffered a concussion after hitting his head on a bolt holding the armor in place inside the vehicle. He was dazed and could do little to help as his passenger reached his legs across him to kick the door.
“Afterward, as we were sitting and waiting for the ambulance, the driver said he needed to go back and get his cellphone,” Brown said. “By that time, the whole front of the truck was on fire. I told him, ‘Don’t worry about that. You barely got out of there alive.’”
Brown, a former lineworker who has worked at Southwest EC for nearly five years, credits his co-op safety training for helping him know what to do in an emergency.
“We all kind of have the mindset to try to help whenever we can,” he said. “I’m definitely going to focus even more in safety training sessions. You never know when you’re going to need to use it.”
Powers, who is recovering at home from whiplash and a sore back, said he is grateful to the co-op as well as to Brown. He also is thankful that his passenger escaped with only a thumb injury.
“I can’t thank Kurtis enough, and I can’t help but think that the training the co-op gives the guys helped a lot,” Powers said. “There’s nothing I can do to show Kurtis the gratitude he deserves.”
James Ashworth, CEO and general manager of Preston-based Southwest EC, said the co-op is proud of Brown’s heroism. Brown went right back to work after the rescue until Ashworth found out and told him to take the rest of the day off.
“We often say we’re part of a family here at Southwest,” Ashworth said. “Kurtis was in the right place at the right time, and he had the courage to act and do what he could with what he had. He saved two lives that day. The cooperative family is very proud of him.”
Brown, a 26-year-old husband and father of a 2-year-old girl, said he can’t stop thinking about all the “what ifs” that could have changed the outcome.
“If I’d finished lunch a minute earlier, I may have missed the accident entirely, and if I finished a minute later, it would probably have been too late,” he said. “I believe it was God’s timing. He put me in the right place at the right time.”
Erin Kelly is a staff writer at NRECA.