David Proeber Photography

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Friends and classmates of the four youths who died in Friday night's fiery truck wreck near Middletown  payed their respects at the scene Saturday, February 16, 2008. The tree at right was charred when the gasoline tank of the truck came off and fueled a fire that engulfed the extended cab pickup truck about two miles east of Middletown. (The Pantagraph, David Proeber)

Hero haunted by generosity

as students die in fiery crash

By David Proeber

Pantagraph photo editor

 

MIDDLETOWN - Mike Boyer is not the sort of person who would pass a motorist in need, but his generosity has left him without answers as he grapples with the question, "what if?"

 

His quick action probably saved the lives of two young men he pulled from a wrecked pickup truck before fire engulfed it, but four others died.

 

Boyer and his wife, Tracey, were driving home to their farm near Middletown from a basketball game at Lincoln Community High School when in the dark his headlights revealed a set of skid marks on the steep downside of Polecat Hill a couple of miles from their home.

 

"We got down the hill, and then I saw what looked like a dark colored, extended cab pickup truck off to the side of the road," Boyer said. "My wife said it looked like there were little flames coming from beneath the truck."

 

When Boyer reached the scene of the wreck two miles east of Middletown, he found the truck had left the road and slid sideways across 40 feet of grass. The truck appeared to have struck two trees on the driver's side. The cargo bed of the truck had come off, and there were tools scattered around the wreckage.

 

"My wife called 911, and that's when I noticed one of the boys yelling for help," he said.

 

"The cries were coming out of the back side of the truck on the passenger side," Boyer said. "His head was sticking out the back window and he was saying, ‘Help me, help me.'"

 

"I didn't know what to do," Boyer said. "I wasn't sure if I should move him so I looked for something to put the fire out."

 

Boyer said he had no idea there were six people in the truck, so he tried to kick some dirt on what appeared to be a small fire. The ground was frozen and wouldn't give, and he couldn't reach the flames to put them out.

 

"It appeared that the gasoline tank had been knocked loose from the truck and was lying on the ground under the driver's seat," Boyer said.

 

"I don't know who he was, but at that point another driver stopped at the scene and drove off to try to find a fire extinguisher," Boyer said.

 

"I knew it was going to be a long time before the fire department arrived."

 

Boyer made another cell phone call to a friend who was a former firefighter and told him to bring a fire extinguisher to the scene of the wreck, but somehow the message got garbled and the friend ended up driving to Boyer's house instead.

 

"There was an unbelievable amount of smoke inside the cab and I began to see flames lapping up from the floorboard," he said.

 

Boyer said he couldn't wait any longer and pulled the young man, Zach Rickord, by the arm out the side window on the passenger side.

 

"I laid him on the ground aside the truck," he said. "That's when I heard Clark Schoonover, who was hanging out the back window on the driver's side," Boyer said.

 

"Schoonover said his legs felt as if they were burning - although I don't know if his clothes were actually on fire at that point."

 

Boyer said Schoonover told him his arm and his leg were hurt, so Boyer grabbed him by his good right arm and lifted him out of the truck.

 

"I bear-hugged him and laid him next to the truck," Boyer said.

 

"The boys were telling me there was a girl in the truck, but I found her lying nearby on the ground."

 

Boyer and his wife moved all three to a spot farther from the burning vehicle, which by then had become engulfed in flames. Boyer tried to talk to the girl, but she was unresponsive.

 

At that point, Boyer's close friend, Josh Pharis, a Logan County sheriff's deputy, arrived at the scene.

 

"Josh tried to resuscitate the girl but didn't appear to be getting a response, either." he said. "Josh did a good job of taking over the scene. I'm not trained for that sort of stuff."

 

"Another student drove up and helped keep Rickord and Schoonover quiet," Boyer said.

 

Boyer said the Middletown Fire Department and Lincoln ambulance finally arrived on the scene, but by then it was too late to save the three other passengers still inside the truck.

 

"The fire department does a good job here, but they're volunteers," he said. "They have to drive from their homes to the fire station and then to the scene and that takes time."

 

"I thought maybe there was another one or two still in the truck, but I never would have thought there were six people riding in the truck," he said.

 

"They were all good kids," Boyer said. "I either knew them or their families."

 

Boyer looked straight ahead and paused for a good while.

 

"I'm going to go out and get a fire extinguisher for my car," he said.

 

He fought back tears that welled up in his eyes.

 

"Maybe - I don't know if those kids were alive in that truck - but if I had had a fire extinguisher, then we'd know."