Editor’s Note: Dr. Dietrich Jehle is a 1975 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences and a 1979 graduate of the UVA Medical School.
The best people were at the right place at the worst time.
At least a dozen bystanders, including a doctor specializing in emergency medicine and vehicle crashes, responded to Thursday’s six-vehicle pileup on the Niagara Thruway in a valiant attempt to save the injured.
Their efforts might not have been enough to save one little boy, but with everything in their power, they tried. Hospital employees still wearing their ID tags from a day at work got out of their cars. Ordinary folks scavenged for tools and fire extinguishers. They cleared a path through three lanes of stopped traffic to let emergency responders through.
And they never gave up.
“You do emergency medicine,” said Dr. Dietrich Jehle, speaking about himself. “You know you wouldn’t sleep for the rest of your life if you left a kid in a burning car.”
The associate medical director of Erie County Medical Center had just left the hospital for Ralph Wilson Stadium, where he treats injured Bills fans. He was only a few cars back from the chain-reaction crash that injured eight people. Vehicles in front of him spun, crashed and flipped.
Fortunately, Jehle was no stranger to traffic accidents. The emergency physician is also a University at Buffalo professor who has conducted numerous headline-drawing studies regarding traffic safety for the National Center of Transportation Injury Research.
He pulled over onto the shoulder and ran to the closest vehicle, a compact car crumpled like paper where a 6-year-old and 7-year-old sat trapped in back.
Michael Byham of Ironworkers Local 6 was heading home on his motorcycle after a day spent replacing bearings on the Grand Island Bridge. He was also several cars behind the accident.
He said he saw a white utility van ahead of him plow into the compact car and send it spinning into another lane of traffic. That same truck subsequently struck an SUV and flipped it on its side, he said.
When all the vehicles finally came to a rest, Byham headed toward the crumpled compact.
Jehle called out to people trying to help the woman in the flipped sedan. They responded that the woman was trapped but talking and waved Jehle back to the smashed compact. Roughly a dozen people had gathered at the scene when flames erupted from the engine compartment.
One bystander had opened the back of the utility truck involved in the accident and exposed the tools inside. Someone also retrieved a fire extinguisher and got to work. Jehle grabbed an ax. Another man grabbed a hammer. They headed back to the burning car as onlookers tried to douse the flames with bottled water.
One man who called WBEN radio Friday morning recalled, “For the better part of two to three minutes, I was sitting under the hood trying to put the fire out. The scary thing was, every time I thought I had put the fire out, the fire started right up again.”
Byham said he also called for an extinguisher and doused one of several fires that erupted. None of the car doors would open. The right side of the compact car was completely smashed in, making it impossible to extricate anyone from that end.
The 6-year-old boy, Tshanolo Hill, was sitting on the rear driver’s side of the car and seemed to be the least injured.
Jehle told bystanders to use the hammer from the utility truck to break out the rear window, then called to the child, “Cover your eyes!”
Byham, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 275 pounds, took the hammer from one rescuer and smashed the window out. Together, the group pulled Tshanolo from the car.
“Everybody’s going to die,” Byham recalled the boy saying. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get everybody out.’ “
Michael E. Hill, the driver, came next. His window was down, but it was impossible to pull him through that small opening. He was also in a lot of pain and unable to assist or follow instructions, Jehle said.
One enterprising rescuer suddenly appeared with a battery-powered reciprocating saw and began cutting through the door’s window frame. Everyone then pulled down on the frame until it left a big enough hole to pull the driver out.
By this time, smoke was billowing into the cabin.
Byham caught sight of a school bus crawling along in the opposite direction. He climbed atop the concrete barrier separating the opposing lanes of traffic. “Give me the fire extinguisher,” he called.
The bus driver handed one over, which Byham used to quell flames starting to reach into the car’s cabin.
That left only one boy.
Seven-year-old Asa B. Hill was pinned between the rear and front seats and appeared lifeless. Someone said he was dead, but Jehle saw his chest was still moving. His lower half was obscured from view.
“We’ll have to wait for the Jaws of Life,” said one person.
But Jehle had other ideas.
“In my mind, I’m saying that’s not an option,” he recalled. “The kid was not going to burn to death in front of us.”
Apparently, Jehle didn’t just say that in his mind. He was shouting it. Byham said it was Jehle who motivated the group to save the little boy.
Jehle turned to Byham, the largest man in the group.
“You take the passenger window, I’ll take the front window and we’ll pull,” Jehle told him.
Together they grabbed the boy’s arms and shirt, coming up several times for air before diving back into the smoke through the windows.
“We were pulling so hard, I thought we were going to do damage to his arms,” Byham said, “so I reached in and got in around his armpits.”
He also called for more assistance, and a third man reached in to lend his strength.
Finally, the boy came loose. He had bruises on his forehead. Jehle cradled the child and brought him over with the rest of the injured victims to the roadway shoulder.
Then the doctor moved on to the SUV with the woman trapped. He and others had carefully broken out the windshield by the time firefighters arrived.
Emergency crews immediately recognized Jehle. He spent 17 years as a clinical director of ECMC’s emergency department and was part of a “Smart Team” that responded to the scene of major accidents. He had pulled people out of car wrecks before, but never when the car was burning.
When the rescuers arrived, Jehle had triaged the victims. He pointed to Asa Hill and told paramedics to take him first, then the driver, then Tshanolo, then the woman from the flipped SUV.
Jehle then asked the emergency responders how much time had passed since the crash.
It had been 10 minutes.
While Jehle, Byham and other unidentified individuals struggled to help the victims of one car, many others were doing their part. Health care workers left their cars to help victims.
Another pair of men walked down the center lane of the Thruway, directing drivers to the right and left lanes so that emergency crews had a clear path to the accident site.
“There wasn’t one hero,” Byham said. “There was a bunch of people who jumped in.”
Jehle also downplayed his role, saying, “This is what I do at work. I think I was blessed with the opportunity to help, to be there.”
When word came late Friday afternoon that Asa Hill’s family said the little boy was considered brain-dead, his rescuers were devastated.
“We tried our best,” Byham said in a choked voice.
Asa Hill’s father, Amilcar Hill, recognized that in his public remarks from the hospital Friday. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said, pointing out that he could have lost two other family members in the accident. “I can only hope that someday I can do something as heroic as they did.”