When two cars collided on I-95 this Labor Day weekend, throwing people all over the asphalt and leaving another trapped inside a burning car, it was a Miami Beach cop who was on scene first.
Officer Earl Hackworth was heading to the station for his midnight shift when he came upon the fiery wreck. Until more help arrived, Hackworth worked alone to direct traffic, tend to victims and organize Good Samaritans who had gathered.
“In moments like that, time is critical. If it would have been a few more minutes before someone called or before rescue arrived, it’s hard to say” what could have happened, Hackworth said.
According to police reports and Hackworth’s own account:
It was about 9:45 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 1, and Hackworth, an eight-year veteran, was heading to roll call to start his midnight shift.
Up ahead, he saw smoke and flames. Then one victim lying on the asphalt. Soon, he’d see two more.
He could see a mangled black Nissan. Pieces of the car’s engine, chassis, and transmission were scattered all around the scene of the accident. One side of the car had been violently slammed into the other, almost melding them.
Hackworth called for help, blocked traffic with his police car and then got to work.
“Because there’s so many people involved, basically you just have to make sure that no one’s dying, that everyone’s breathing. You go around and assess each patient; try to reassure them; tell them that help is on the way,” Hackworth said.
The victims told Hackworth that four people were traveling in the car when they crashed, but the officer could see only three. He checked in the car, which was on fire.
“When I open the door of the car, I see the young lady in front. I think she may have been a passenger in the back, but during all of the twists and turns, she may have been propelled to the front,” Hackworth said. “I was talking to her, trying to see if she was breathing, and it took a while for her to react.”
She finally did. Hackworth doused the flames with water from a stash in his trunk. The fire seemed under control, so he checked on the others. Several witnesses and passersby stopped, and Hackworth gave them all jobs. He directed one man to stand in front of an injured victim who was lying on the ground, to make sure she didn’t get hit by a car.
When Hackworth returned to the car, the woman trapped inside had managed to wiggle into a position from which Hackworth was able to pull her out of the car, and away from the hot oil and metal that littered the crash site.
The accident happened just as a new police shift was starting, so other Miami Beach police officers eventually stopped and helped until the Florida Highway Patrol took over, Hackworth said.
“It kind of just hits you by surprise, but you just do what you’re trained to do,” Hackworth said.
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