TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
It was just another day for Staff Sgt. Emily Johnson, 349th Aeromedical Staging Squadron administrative assistant. She had finished up work at Travis Air Force Base, California, assisting members of the 349th Air Mobility Wing with travel voucher issues. After a change of clothes, she was on her way to class in Vallejo, where she was taking classes to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.
As she drove down I-80 during its treacherous rush hour, the truck in front of her changed lanes revealing a 65-mile-per-hour collision course with a stopped car.
“The vehicle just casually merged over,” she said. “So, I didn’t think anything of it. Then all of a sudden, there was a stalled car in front of me. I slammed on my breaks, going 65. I had maybe 30 feet to stop.”
Johnson sat there for a moment in the carpool lane to process as cars zoomed around her.
“I sat there in my car and looked behind me,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to get hit, I’m going to get hit.’ I couldn’t stay there. I needed to get over.”
She quickly cut around the car, parked about 20 feet in front of it, and turned on her hazard lights. Once settled, she called 911 and told dispatch there was going to be an accident on the highway. Johnson then rushed to the driver in the stalled car, an elderly woman.
“I told her, ‘Get out of your car, get out of your car. You’re going to get hit. You’re not going to live,” Johnson described.
The Reserve Citizen Airman escorted the driver to her car and placed her in the passenger seat. As Johnson was about to leave the highway to get to a safe location, a crash was heard as two cars plowed into the back of the stalled car.
“As soon as I heard the hit, I told the woman to stay in my car,” Johnson described. “I jumped out of my car and ran back to check on the other drivers.”
And then a truck came. The two drivers who had hit the stalled car had gotten out of their cars to inspect the damage. When the truck came, it didn’t merge into the other lane where traffic was, it went towards the divide.
“I don’t think he had time to stop,” Johnson said.
The truck hit the two cars and struck the drivers who were out inspecting the damage.
“Literally, this all happened in less than a minute,” Johnson said. “I heard the initial crash, and by the time I got out to check, the truck had hit. Immediately, I started looking for people.”
She rushed to the first car, the air bag had gone off, the door was open, and there was no one to be seen. She went to the next one and the door was bent back the opposite way, and still no one.
“I thought, ‘Where are these people?’” she said.
She looked on the other side of the concrete divider, where oncoming traffic was, and there was a man standing in the middle of the highway. His pants were tattered and he was bleeding from his legs and face. He said he flew over the barrier when the truck hit him.
“My first thought was, ‘How are you alive? How are you conscious? How have you not been hit by another car?” Johnson said.
At this point, an off-duty cop pulled over and assisted Johnson in pulling the man over.
Johnson immediately noticed the blood squirting from the man’s foot, and grabbed his belt to use as a tourniquet. After reassessing, she determined it wasn’t that bad, so she didn’t tie it off.
As she aided him, the man kept saying, “There was another man with me. There was another man with me. I don’t know where he’s at.”
Suddenly, a voice called over the traffic, “There’s someone over here and he’s badly injured.”
When the truck hit, the man was knocked forward and flew behind the stalled car. He was laying on his back bleeding severely from the back of his head. His arm was also completely shattered, and he kept reaching for his right arm.
“I ran right over to him and held his neck because he kept trying to move,” Johnson said. “I held onto him until the paramedics got there.”
The paramedics who showed up on the scene were frantic, Johnson said.
“I had to guide the paramedics in the proper way to place and carry the litter,” she said.
From there, both of those who had been struck were taken to the hospital. Both men survived, though one went to the intensive care unit for two weeks due to internal bleeding and punctured lungs.
Johnson credited her quick response to her recent deployment.
“I spent my time working in the hospital,” she said. “I often responded whenever the Blackhawks would come in with patients. I’d perform CPR, litter carries; there were several mass casualties and patients bleeding profusely.”
When the whole incident started, she just kicked into autopilot. The highway patrol who showed up on scene told her she shouldn’t have stopped and gotten out of her car; she could have been killed.
“Nothing ever makes me second guess what I did,” she said. “If it happened all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m just happy everyone lived.”