Looks like a brush fire, Kim Cooper thought as she spotted an orange glow ahead on Interstate 75. It was near dusk, and she and her husband, Steve, were trucking through northern Kentucky hauling auto parts from Louisville to Detroit for a freight company. Steve, 59, was fast asleep in the truck's living quarters as Kim, 52, drove up to the scene. That's when she saw it was much worse than a brush fire.
"Steve, wake up!" she shouted. "There's a truck on fire!" A big rig had tumbled down an embankment, and flames were crawling across its cab. Kim yanked their truck to the side of the road, and Steve pulled on his clothes. Then he scrambled down the slope.
Inside the burning truck, Ronnie Sanders, 38, was fighting for his life. He'd been running a heavy load of tractors and forklifts from Georgia to Indianapolis when a Grand Caravan in front of him stopped suddenly in traffic on the icy road. As Ronnie bore down, he could see children in the backseat. The truck's bulk would probably protect him from the worst of the impact, but the momentum of 23 tons would likely crush everyone inside the van.
"In Kentucky, the hills are steep, but at that moment, I didn't think about it," he says of that evening last November. "I figured instead of killing other people, I'd just put the truck in the ditch." He jerked the wheel to the right, somehow keeping the truck upright as it plowed 60 feet down the embankment. At the bottom, rocks pierced a fuel tank, which ignited. A tree branch smashed through the windshield and knocked Ronnie unconscious. He came to a couple of minutes later to find the cab in flames and his legs on fire.
Ronnie yelled for help as he struggled to escape. But the cab was smashed in, and try as he might, he couldn't untangle himself from his seat belt.
As Steve bolted down the slope, he could hear Ronnie's cries ahead. Then a thundering sound erupted behind him.
A Ford Taurus, which had lost control in the melee above, had skidded off the highway and was now barreling down the slope directly at him. With no time to dive out of the way, he leaped upward and sailed over the car's hood.
The Taurus came to a halt close to the truck. Kim was already scrambling toward the car. Its passengers appeared shaken but unharmed as she helped maneuver the car away from the burning truck. Meanwhile, Steve dashed to Ronnie, who was dangling headfirst from the passenger door. Ronnie had used his pocketknife to cut himself free from the driver's-side seat belt only to get his boot ensnared in another one. Steve climbed into the burning cab to free him.
"All that was going through my mind was, My God, I do not want to be here," Steve recalls. "It was so hot, I could hardly stand it."
He tried three times to pull Ronnie out before finally freeing him. But Ronnie's legs were still burning, so Steve laid him on the ground, ripped off his own shirt, and beat the flames with it. He'd managed to drag him about 20 yards when one of the truck's 150-gallon fuel tanks exploded.
"It was like a cannon blast," says Steve. "The percussive force hurt my chest. It just picked me up and blew me back." Fortunately, the explosion was aimed skyward.
Steve got up and peeled off what was left of Ronnie's smoldering jeans and held his hand while they waited for the ambulance, as Kim raced up and down the slope, grabbing wet towels and a blanket.
Both Steve and Ronnie paid a price for risking their lives for strangers. Ronnie spent two months in the hospital and received skin grafts on both of his legs. He now wears compression garments for his scars and gets physical therapy twice a week. "If Steve hadn't done what he did, I probably would have been toast," he says. Steve suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns, and shrapnel from the explosion broke a tooth.
In February, the Coopers received a Hero of the Highway award from the Open Road Foundation for rescuing an injured driver. Steve insists Ronnie is the real hero: "If he hadn't gone into the ditch, he would have hit that van. It was his decision to drive off the road."
"I feel pretty good about it," says Ronnie. "A lot of people could have been hurt."