21 Minutes to Rescue
Staff Sgt. Brannon Soter, a Fairfax resident and member of the Vermont Air National guard (VTANG)
fire department, arrived on the scene of the accident to determine whether they would need to begin
a rescue or retrieval mission for the driver who had just plummeted 70 feet into a ravine with his
tractor-trailer. The wreckage was like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces thrown in a heap on the
The evening of June 25th was just one more in a row of summer nights deluged by rain that had been
ceaselessly pounding the Green Mountain State, flooding roads and lawns and testing motorists'
skills. Hydroplaning seemed to have been the culprit in this case, in a very busy section
of the interstate over Winooski River Bridge. Three cars had hydroplaned and authorities believed that
Dany Gauthier, a Canadian truck driver delivering a load of paper, was so concerned about saving
others that in an effort to avoid a collision, he ended up crashing through the guardrail and into the
At 8:53 p.m. witnesses to the accident called for rescue and five minutes later the VTANG firefighters
were on scene.
As the rain continued to pelt and obscure vision, Soter peered around with his flashlight for the driver.
Standing next to what was left of the truck's cab, now a flattened square, the military firefighter saw
no sign of the missing driver. He asked a police officer, the first person on the scene, if he knew
where the man might be.
"There," the officer said, pointing to a chunk of twisted metal, about fifteen feet away from the
steering wheel, in an area Soter would never have thought the driver would be.
"Where?" he asked as he gingerly made his way to where the officer had indicated, but between
flashes of lightning and a relentless curtain of rain, he could only make out a shoe. And then he
realized that was the only part of the trucker uncovered by the ragged metal of the vehicle.
His heart sagged as he thought, there is no way the man could have survived this. Following protocol,
Soter lifted a heavy piece of truck from the body. As he did, the injured driver moved and moaned.
The Canadian had sustained serious trauma and severe blood loss was a major concern, but against
all odds, the man still clung to life.
Soter excitedly contacted the Winooski fire department's Chief, "We have a viable rescue, I repeat, a
viable rescue! Please send equipment!" The Chief, concerned by all the factors of the accident, asked
if the VTANG fire department take charge of patient extrication while other departments concentrated
on traffic flow, fire prevention, and patient care. Without hesitation, Soter said, "Yes."
Air Guard Assistant Chief Master Sgt. Eugene Humphrey was back at the VTANG Fire Station,
monitoring radio traffic and overheard requests for additional VTANG personnel to respond with their
Technical Rescue vehicle. Without hesitation he sent two personnel with the vehicle. He then
activated the emergency recall for additional off-duty fire fighters to respond to the station for
coverage. Humphrey was also dumbfounded. By all accounts, the driver should not have survived.
"We have a highly trained crew here," he said of the VTANG fire department later. "But I knew that
this would be testing every aspect of their skills. The rain made vision poor, the lightning was a threat,
and the crashed vehicle was next to a swollen river. Diesel drenched the ground, rocks, and truck
where the engine block was still very hot. At any time a deadly fire could have sparked, while my guys
were precariously trying to save this truck driver's life."
Soter, along with two other VTANG firemen, one of them traditional and one a civilian firefighter,
began the arduous task of clearing a path to Gauthier. The truck had landed wrapped around a large
concrete bridge support with the cab on one side and the flatbed on the other. Caught in the middle,
somehow, was the Canadian truck driver.
Every action had to be executed with the delicate balance of haste and care, since ticking minutes
lowered chances of survival, but disrupting the rubble too much could turn the mission from rescuing
a life to retrieving a body.
"We dedicate our lives to saving other people's lives," Soter said later. "We found him alive, and we
were going to keep him that way."
Using enormous hydraulic scissors to cut through rubble, they fought a path through the wreckage.
At times they could see almost nothing, and situational awareness was hampered. Worried for the
safety of the men under his supervision, Soter would yell out every thirty seconds, "Is everyone ok?"
When they responded in the affirmative work would continue.
Within minutes they cleared out the area where they could be near Gauthier. Soter saw that simply
pulling the man out from the wreckage was not an option; jagged, ripped metal would have shredded
the patient's body. A rescue person would have to jimmy into the small hole, buttress debris with his
body, and lift Gauthier up so a board could go underneath and secure him.
Airman First Class Dylan Desranleau from Essex knew with his slighter build that he was the obvious
choice. When Soter's eyes landed on him, Desranleau hesitated for a second, knowing he'd be
entering a very dangerous situation in which he could lose his own life. But training and dedication
kicked in after that brief doubt, and he stepped forward.
Just a few months prior to that Monday night, Desranleau had gone to a North Carolina Air Guard site
for Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) instruction, which had prepared him for moving through cavedin
concrete walls or collapsing metal structures during a natural-disaster rescue. The hours of attuning
safety for oneself while trying to help another came back to him as he painstakingly shimmied
through a cave of hot, spiky metal debris.
He had never been as grateful for his protective fireman suit as he navigated the narrow tunnel. Diesel
fumes threatened to overpower him, and he knew, like the ground outside, everything was doused
with fuel. At one point his hands came in contact with something heavy and powerfully hot; he had
found the engine block of the truck, so scorching he felt it through his fireman's gloves. He wasn't
surprised, since it had only been around twenty minutes since the crash, but he gained a new
appreciation for his gear.
Finally, he was able to get his hands beneath Gauthier, who seemed unconscious, but was moving
erratically and in obvious pain.
"It's ok, I'm here to help you," was the first thing Desranleau said to the trucker, using psychological
first-aid. "We're going to get you out of here."
After securing the injured man with boards underneath him, they managed to move him from the
treacherous cocoon. It was a major victory, but there was more to be done. Before emergency
medical technicians could work on stabilizing him, VTANG firemen needed to move him up a steep
slope riddled with diesel-drenched rocks. By then two more Air Guard rescue members had arrived
on the scene, and using haul lines that had been positioned by another department, they brought
Gauthier up to safety.
Twenty-one minutes had passed since they arrived to the crash scene. Gauthier was in critical
condition, but stable, and brought to Fletcher Allen Health Care. Vermont Air Guard responders were
taking a second and then a third sweep of the crash site to be sure there were no other vehicles or
people involved, not breathing a sigh of relief until they were satisfied there were no other casualties.
Desranleau later said this was by far the worst accident he had been in and was glad he had gone
through the USAR training through the Guard. He said he is eager to learn more skills to benefit his
community through his job of being a VTANG firefighter.
Now, after nearly a week has gone by, Soter and Desranleau said they may go and visit Gauthier,
despite the fact they typically try not to become emotionally involved with the people they help.
Becoming too close to a patient may affect their response in a future emergency, they said, but they
are just amazed by the man who survived such an accident.
"I know Dany Gauthier saved lives that day," Soter said. "If he had not swerved to avoid the cars
ahead of him, he would have been like a wrecking ball through those vehicles. I respect him for
having the instinct to put other's safety ahead of his."