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The Saving of NASCAR’s Jack Roush
It was Friday evening, and Larry and Donna Hicks were getting ready to watch the six o’clock news at their lake house in Palos Verdes Estates outside Troy, Alabama. Hicks was a 52-year-old retired sergeant in the Marine Corps, now working as a game warden for the state of Alabama. He came home from work half an hour early and he and Donna had talked about going to the movies but decided not to.
The television news was just starting when they looked out the window and saw a small plane flying along the shore of Palos Verdes Lake.
“I wonder if he knows about the power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane suddenly shuddered and stopped, flipping over and heading straight for the lake. Hicks was already running out the back door when the plane hit the water, yelling to his wife behind him, “Call 911! I’ll see if I can help the pilot.”
Fortunately, Larry’s brother Wayne had left a 14-foot aluminum johnboat with an electric trolling motor at the lake that day in preparation for bass fishing, but then he didn’t show. Donna called 911 and ran outside in time to see Larry in command of the johnboat heading for the Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards from shore.
Years ago, when Hicks was stationed at the Marine Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he spent two and a half months part-time in an intensive search and rescue program. The major got him into it because he thought Hicks might be good at it because he was muscular and putting on weight. The training was specifically aimed at rescuing pilots who had fallen into the water in fixed or rotary wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to get pilots out of planes that crashed upside down. However, he remained in the telecommunications unit and never had the opportunity to use his specialized training.
The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake, and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane jet fuel from a ruptured fuel tank floated above the surface, making greasy patterns. The rear half of the plane and a broken wing were sticking out of the water. Hicks climbed out of the boat onto the wing and tied a line to the plane to keep the boat from drifting away. The heavy smell of gas invaded his nostrils. Only later did he think about the danger of the plane exploding.
The water was murky and Hicks had trouble finding his way underwater. The plane crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field” but fortunately did not hit any trees. On the first fall, Hicks ran out of air and was forced to return to the surface without locating the pilot. For the second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath and descended a third time.
Larry’s military training—rehearsing what to do over and over again until it became second nature—took over: “Find the pilot, pull the pilot…” Hicks reached for the pilot’s seat belt; luckily it was one he recognized by the feel of his military training. He released the belt and the pilot flew into his arms. Hicks swam to the surface and pulled the man with him. The pilot had bones sticking out of his legs and his feet were crooked.
The man was bleeding from the nose and mouth and was no longer breathing. He drowned. The Troja police have already arrived at the shore of the lake. Larry yelled at the officers, “He’s not breathing,” and heard one officer say to another, “He’s dead.”
Hicks pulled the man to the wing sticking out of the water and applied a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs and pulled to drain the water from his lungs, then began modified CPR. The motionless figure coughed up water and blood, then began breathing on the fifth breath. “I’m breathing him again,” Hicks yelled to the rescue unit on the shore.
Gripping the wing of the plane with his left hand, Hicks lay on his back in the water and supported the pilot on his chest with his right arm to keep his head above water. He felt a stinging sensation from the jet fuel that worsened until he was in great pain. He later discovered that the top layer of his skin had been burned.
The rescue team brought out another boat, put the pilot on the back deck and brought him to shore. Larry tried to follow the four members of the rescue team as they exited the lake, but his legs gave out. He and the pilot were taken to a Troy hospital.
While Hicks was being treated for gasoline burns on his upper body, he heard helicopters arrive to transport the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
Word spread almost immediately that the light plane, which had been piloted since 1988 by celebrity NASCAR and Winston Cup car owner Jack Roush, had crashed. An airplane enthusiast, friends of Roush arranged for him to fly the Air-Cam, a specialized aircraft built specifically for photography, as a birthday present.
Roush was initially put on a respirator and treated by a trauma team. He inhaled water and gasoline and suffered closed head injuries, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, compound fractures of his left leg, and fractured ankles. He had no memory of the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.
Amazingly, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business by phone from his hospital bed. On Sunday, he arranged for Larry and Donna to be flown by private jet to Birmingham, Alabama to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush was piloting a plane from his home in Michigan and loitering on crutches at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were at his side.
Larry Hicks has no doubt that a Higher Power was at work in Jack Roush’s incredible rescue. If the Air-Cam had hit high-voltage power lines instead of the supporting wires, as it did, the plane would have burned. If he crashed to the ground or hit a tree in the underwater stump field where he landed, Roush would be killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to the movies that night as they talked about, or had simply been in another part of the house, they would not have seen the plane go down and Jack Roush would have died. If Wayne Hicks had not left the johnboat ready to sail, there would have been no rescue.
But most amazingly, Hicks was one of a small percentage of the population with the specialized knowledge necessary to rescue an upside-down airplane pilot from a watery grave. And one more thing was necessary to save Jack’s life, and that was that Hicks was a man of action, who did not hesitate to put himself at risk to save the life of a stranger.
Larry Hicks was awarded numerous honors as a result of his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the Carnegie Foundation’s Carnegie Award for Heroism, the Robert P. Connally International Medal for Heroism from Kiwanis and Society. Sons of the American Revolution Medal for Heroism. The rescue story appeared in People magazineand Larry and Jack were on the cover NASCAR Illustrated.
Larry is very proud to have followed the code of the United States Marine Corps and served his country with honor, courage and dedication, with selfless service.
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