One saved, one perishes in fiery crash

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published December 2, 2016

 Rob Thornton, 40, of Warren, the owner of Fast N Fair Complete Auto Repair on Sherwood in Center Line, stopped to help the victims of a crash on Nov. 23. Thornton climbed onto a burning truck and helped pull a 79-year-old woman to safety.

Rob Thornton, 40, of Warren, the owner of Fast N Fair Complete Auto Repair on Sherwood in Center Line, stopped to help the victims of a crash on Nov. 23. Thornton climbed onto a burning truck and helped pull a 79-year-old woman to safety.

Photo by Brian Louwers


CENTER LINE — Don’t call Rob Thornton a hero.

That word, he said, is reserved for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day.

But just after 4 p.m. Nov. 23, it surely was Thornton in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, stepping into extreme danger between the downed high-voltage wires in the rain, climbing onto that burning pickup truck and pulling a 79-year-old woman to safety.

He said he would have pulled the man out, too, if he had maybe just 10 more seconds.

Sadly, he did not.

What unfolded was both a blessing and a tragedy. His actions certainly saved the woman. Fate horrifically ended the life of her companion, a 79-year-old Sterling Heights man.

It all happened in two or three minutes on a cold, rainy afternoon at Sherwood and Rinke in Center Line.

“We still don’t know why it happened, but the vehicle was northbound on Sherwood and made a left onto Rinke, and it actually went up over the curb. The driver’s side front wheel, between the disc and the wheel itself, actually drove up the guidewire on the telephone pole,” Center Line Public Safety Director Paul Myszenski said.

The strain on the guidewire caused the pole to “slingshot.” The Ford F-250 came to rest on its side. Wires that broke from the pole and ended up on the ground on both sides of the truck were left crackling, popping and exploding with deadly bursts of high-voltage energy.

An external diesel tank that the truck was carrying came to rest about 5 feet from the crash. The truck started burning near the rear of the cab. The first Center Line public safety officers arrived on the scene and Thornton, 40, of Warren, a married father of two and the owner of Fast N Fair Complete Auto Repair down the street, happened by the chaotic scene as he was taking a customer’s vehicle for a test drive.

He stopped when he saw the police.

“I saw black smoke and I only saw one police car at this time,” Thornton said. “I put the car in park. I ran across the street.”

He said one of the officers told him there were live wires on the ground. But Thornton, who builds monster trucks for fun in his shop and is used to climbing out of or onto his own “toys” when they flip, said he took a quick look around and noticed a man in the truck touching metal.

Thornton said he could see the wires on either side of the truck, but figured he’d be safe enough to go get the man.

“Things were arcin’ and sparkin,’ but I could see people’s hands. I could see only the dude’s hands touching the door,” Thornton said. “In my head I was safe, so I climbed up on top of the truck. I went to grab him. He stepped back, pushed my arms away and pulled the woman out from the back seat or wherever she was in the truck. We didn’t even know she was in there!”

Thornton said the man in the truck passed the woman to him and that he passed her to the police.

He said what happened next happened fast.

“I turned around to go get him. He’s now slumped down in the car. It’s just black smoke billowing out of the car,” Thornton said. “I get ahold of him, you know. The transformer above us blows again.”

He said that’s when more wires fell, the air around them exploded as the energy discharged and the sky turned green.

“At this point in time I hopped off the truck, because I ain’t trying to die,” Thornton said. “When I got down to the ground, I turned around. By the time I turned around and looked, the truck’s in 20-foot flames. There’s nothing nobody can do.”

Thornton said the man who died worked down the street for years and that he knew him. The woman was the man’s companion of 20 years, who was always with him.

The crash remained under investigation on Nov. 30 and the names of the victims were not released, but Myszenski said the woman was transported to Detroit Receiving Hospital and was expected to recover.

The odds of that truck hitting a narrow guidewire at such an angle, in such a way, that it caused the truck to flip on its side were improbable. The odds of a guy used to climbing on flipped monster trucks coming along in the nick of time to save a woman’s life had to be astronomical.

“I’m used to recklessness,” Thornton said in his shop days later. “We’re always on the verge of catastrophe. It is what it is. We’re constantly running up to trucks that have been flipped over and everything else.”

But don’t call him a hero.

“The heroes are the police officers and the Fire Department that never get talked about,” Thornton said. “I’m not the hero here. I’m just a person doing what he should do.”

Myszenski said Thornton’s actions absolutely saved the woman’s life.

“He did what he thought was right, and he was right, no question about it,” Myszenski said. “This was one of those things where seconds counted, and it worked out. He did the right thing. He saw what he saw and he did what he did, and it was wonderful.”