Indiana Guardsmen Honored for Aiding in Fatal I-69 Crash

Two Indiana Army National Guard soldiers were honored at Camp Atterbury, Ind., April 9, for coming to the aid of dozens of victims of a deadly auto collision involving a bus and SUV on Interstate 69 near Angola in northern Indiana, June 21, 2009.

The soldiers recognized, 2nd Lt. Tracy Fields of Mishawaka, Ind., and Spc. Dustin Winebrenner of Auburn, Ind., were awarded the National Guard Association of the United States Valley Forge Cross for Heroism for their actions that day. The Valley Forge Cross is presented to members of the National Guard who have distinguished themselves by performing acts of courage beyond the reasonable call of duty.

The two were returning from National Guard training at Fort Custer, Mich., heading south on I-69 when they approached the wreck. “The bus was in the median and its front half had been crushed in,” said Winebrenner. “An SUV was in the southbound lane, and by the time Fields and I exited his vehicle, the SUV was almost completely engulfed in flames. It was obvious that the two vehicles had hit each other head on.”

Traveling in the SUV were PGA Golf Pro Chris Smith’s wife, daughter and son. Smith’s wife lost her life in the crash. The children were ejected from the vehicle and were injured, but survived. The bus was carrying Canadian semi-pro football team the London Silverbacks, returning to London, Ontario, Canada.

“I thought to myself that if anyone was still in the SUV, they were already dead, so we both ran towards the bus,” said Winebrenner. “The windshield was broken out of the bus and the driver was hanging out of it. Some rear passengers were climbing out of the emergency exits located on the sides.”

However, the bus snapped in the center, lodging the engine and transmission into the cab, blocking the front passengers from exiting. The soldiers climbed through the bus windshield and went to work evacuating the passengers trapped in the front, starting with the football team’s coach and his pregnant wife. A Coast guardsman had arrived at the scene and the soldiers handed the rest of the passengers down to him through a window.

Winebrenner made attempts to wake the unconscious driver lodged in windshield as Fields checked the bus to make sure they didn’t miss anyone. A series of small explosions in the burning SUV near the bus threatened to ignite the bus’ fuel.

“The driver regained consciousness, but he still couldn’t see right and was reacting very slowly,” said Winebrenner. “Fields yelled, ‘We gotta get out of here before this thing explodes!’ I told the driver, ‘Sir, we’re leaving, now!’ Fields and I each grabbed the driver from underneath his arms. He was pinned, but we yanked on him a couple times hard enough to get him loose with minor injuries. We handed him down, and Field and I exited the bus through the windshield and ordered people away from the wreckage.”

Winebrenner and Fields setup a triage point and applied first aid to the injured passengers. They worked to calm the pregnant woman, checked her for injuries and treated her for shock. Fire fighters and medical responders arrived on the scene, aided by a National Guard supply convoy that was passing by.

The children needed to be medically evacuated by helicopter, and soldiers on the scene were asked to setup a landing zone for the inbound flight. Fields helped move the injured children to the transport.

“They had been ejected into a ditch that was very steep and wet,” said Fields. “Along with several other soldiers, we carried the children out of the ditch and onto the waiting helicopter.”

The award was presented by the Indiana Guard’s highest ranking general, Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, member and formerly the president of NGAUS.

“As sad as it is, a tragedy like this is the reason we train to be prepared to aid our neighbors in time of need,” said Umbarger. “These soldiers’ training kicked in and they reacted selflessly, a true hallmark of a citizen soldier.”

Winebrenner said he felt there was no other option but to stop and help that day on the highway.

“My training took over and I reacted,” said Winebrenner. “I was there, and I was capable. I just feel bad for the Smiths. It’s just a horrible thing that happened and can’t be changed. I’m sorry that the two Smith children have to deal with that kind of tragedy at such a young age.”

Fields said he feels that he was there for a reason that day.

“The events of that day can only be explained as divine intervention,” said Field. “It was fate that Spc. Winebrenner and I were there at the right time. It was fate that a just a few miles behind us was a supply convoy carrying medical supplies. It was fate that we had a qualified [soldier] on ground to aid in setting up a landing zone for the helicopter. I feel as if that mission came down from a much higher headquarters. I continue to pray for the Smith family and the loss they incurred and my heart goes out to them.”

Story by:
Sgt. John Crosby

DISCLAIMER: Neither Indiana VA Mortgages ( nor NEO Home Loans is affiliated with any government agencies, including the VA.