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‘Thank God they were there’: Rescue from fiery crash on interstate bonds strangers

By David Wahlberg

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    LODI, Wisconsin ( State Journal) — When an eight-vehicle crash left Ross Kopfer and his 11-year-old son trapped in their Ford F-150 pickup, the hood in flames, they never imagined passersby would save them.

But as some onlookers captured video on their smartphones of the bloody scene on Interstate 39-90-94 near Lodi, a truck driver, a mom and her two young adult children rescued the injured Kopfers seconds before their vehicle exploded, saving two lives on June 12, 2020, in a chain-reaction collision that killed four.

Two years later, the former strangers share a bond forged by serendipity and heroism. The rescue wasn’t without risk and sacrifice: lengthy hospital stays for the Kopfers, heart problems linked to the event for the trucker and a mix of honorable and haunting memories for the young adults.

“They risked their lives to save our lives,” said Kopfer, 52, a financial adviser from Oconomowoc who has two older children. “Thank God they were there, and they were the ones who were called to do what they did.”

Earl Morgan-Heft, 60, of Lone Rock, the now-retired truck driver who extricated Kopfer and his son, Jacob, said he knew he had to act quickly. “I had to pick out who I thought was alive and who I thought was dead, and who could I save,” he said.

Tyler Martins, 20, and his sister Erica Martins, 24, both of Hartland, stopped at the crash with their mother, Julie. They ran to the scene and helped Morgan-Heft aid the Kopfers.

“I’d rather get two people out and risk my own life than live with the guilt of not trying,” said Tyler, who last month started work as a Waukesha County Sheriff’s deputy.

“It was all reaction,” said Erica, an emergency room nurse at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee. “There was no time to think and no hesitation.”

Lieutenant Edward Witkiewicz of the Wisconsin State Patrol, who responded to the crash, said Morgan-Heft and the Martins “absolutely saved” the Kopfers’ lives. “I get goose bumps when I talk about it,” he said. “For these people to jump into action and save lives, literally, that is heroic.”

Officials laud the bravery of the Good Samaritans but say motorists should be careful when approaching similar situations. Citizens can encounter jagged metal, broken glass, combustible liquids and hazardous traffic in such scenarios, Witkiewicz said. Unless the circumstances are life-threatening, as was the case with the Kopfers, it’s best to call 911 and wait for first responders, he said.

“I don’t endorse people stopping at scenes, but it certainly helps,” Witkiewicz said.

Kopfer, who spent more than two months at UW Hospital recovering from numerous injuries after he was initially near death, said he’s also grateful for the nurses and other staff who cared for him. Jacob, now 13, was at UW’s American Family Children’s Hospital for 13 days. Visitors were limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic that started three months earlier.

“Not only was I getting physical care from them, they were a huge source of giving me my emotional and mental needs,” Kopfer said in a UW Health interview.

On that fateful Friday in 2020, Ross and Jacob Kopfer were traveling to Mauston for a baseball tournament involving Jacob’s team that Ross coached. They left Oconomowoc about 5:40 a.m., a few minutes later than planned.

About 6:45 a.m., near Highway K in Columbia County, northbound traffic on the freeway was at a standstill from two previous crashes. After the Kopfers stopped, a semitrailer truck traveling at highway speed hit their truck and caused a collision involving six other vehicles, according to the State Patrol.

Barely able to move from his injuries and confined by his seat belt, Kopfer told Jacob to open the passenger door. Then he realized that was impossible. “There were no doors,” he said. “Our front doors were accordions.”

As flames emerged beneath the dashboard, Kopfer prayed for help even though he believed he and Jacob would die. Soon, Morgan-Heft appeared. The trucker vowed to get Kopfer out but first ran to the passenger side to assist Jacob.

While Morgan-Heft was pulling Jacob out through the back door, Tyler Martins showed up, helping him free the boy. Erica, who had just finished nursing school, saw that Jacob’s arm was degloved from the elbow to the wrist, the skin apparently ripped off by his seat belt. She took off her shirt and wrapped it around the arm to control bleeding, a makeshift tourniquet later reinforced with a bungee cord Tyler found on a nearby truck.

Julie Martins, 51, a state probation and parole officer, called 911 to report the crash and gathered blankets and towels from halted motorists to wrap around victims.

Morgan-Heft returned to Kopfer’s truck. The smell, previously of burning plastic, now carried the odor of oil. The trucker reclined Kopfer’s seat, releasing his seat belt, and started pulling him out the back passenger door. Tyler came back and helped Morgan-Heft lift Kopfer out.

Less than a minute later, the truck exploded, Kopfer said. Morgan-Heft and Tyler “easily could have been in the truck when it blew up, trying to get us out,” he said.

He and Jacob were taken to Madison in separate ambulances.

Killed in the pileup were Joseph Kosinski, 72, of Madison; Eleanor Heeringa-Owen, 59, of DeForest; Samantha McMullen, 23, of Oconomowoc; and Phillip Bruno, 55, of Ingleside, Illinois. Four people were injured, and three were injured in the second of the two earlier crashes.

Kopfer and Jacob had broken legs, with Jacob also sustaining a crushed foot, a lung injury, facial cuts and the degloved arm. Kopfer also had a broken pelvis, 12 broken ribs, a broken eye socket and injuries to his liver, kidney, colon, diaphragm, aorta and lung, requiring 11 surgeries and being on a ventilator for weeks.

Kopfer said he still has some pain, especially in the ribs, and can no longer golf or lift heavy objects because he is at risk for hernias given that pig skin mesh now serves as his abdominal wall. But he is back to hunting, fishing, skiing and running.

Jacob, a seventh-grader at St. Charles Catholic School in Hartland, is playing baseball and basketball again, with Kopfer coaching his baseball team. They drove to another baseball tournament this weekend in DeForest, not far from the scene of the crash.

Jacob said he doesn’t remember the incident and finds discussion of it “surreal.”

Morgan-Heft, who left the Fort Transportation terminal in Fort Atkinson the morning of the crash to pick up a load in the Twin Cities, had a series of heart attacks two months later. He said doctors told him the heart attacks, which he hadn’t had before, likely were connected to exertion and smoke inhalation during the rescue.

Last August, Morgan-Heft got a heart transplant, at UW Hospital. He had to take medical retirement from his job, but said he’s doing fine and can still pursue his favorite activity: fishing.

When one of his 17 grandchildren asked him what would have happened if he had died helping the Kopfers, he said, “I would have left two beautiful people behind.”

The Truckload Carriers Association in 2020 named Morgan-Heft a Highway Angel.

Tyler Martins, who graduated from Lake Country Lutheran High School the month before the crash, got a criminal justice degree this spring from Waukesha County Technical College. Kopfer spoke at his graduation ceremony, during which Tyler received the school’s Citizen Service Award for his role in the rescue.

“You represent the best of a bad situation,” Kopfer told Tyler in the speech.

Erica Martins, who graduated from nursing school at Valparaiso University in Indiana in May 2020, was studying for her nurse licensing exam in the back seat on the day of the crash, as Tyler drove the family toward Minnesota to visit relatives.

She started working in a medical-surgical unit at St. Luke’s in September 2020 before switching this April to the ER, where “I love the chaos, the adrenaline,” she said.

Julie Martins said she worries about her children’s mental health in the aftermath of the wreck, which was marked by horrific sights, sounds and smells, and caused some regret from not being able to save others. She encouraged them to seek counseling, which they have done, including from a local pastor.

“Holding it in does nothing but make things worse,” Tyler said.

Kopfer said occasional get-togethers with the Martins, and with Morgan-Heft, have helped all of them heal. “I think they need it as much as I need it,” he said.

Erica Martins said the unforeseeable encounter has changed all of their lives in ways good and bad, with gratification from the lives saved offset by some depression and anxiety in addition to the physical scars.

“We’re all broken because of it,” she said. “But there’s a lot of beauty in brokenness.”

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