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ONLINE SPECIAL: Goodyear Highway Hero considers returning to the road

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Jorge Orozco-Sanchez received Goodyear's 26th North American Highway Hero Award at the Mid-...

Jorge Orozco-Sanchez was named Goodyear's 26th North American Highway Hero.
Jorge Orozco-Sanchez was named Goodyear's 26th North American Highway Hero.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Jorge Orozco-Sanchez received Goodyear’s 26th North American Highway Hero Award at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky., he said for the first time in months he could actually see himself going back to driving trucks.


Up until that moment, Orozco-Sanchez says the pain of not being able to save the life of a 27-year-old mother, even though he saved the lives of her two children from their burning SUV, haunted him. 


“I just couldn’t bring myself to getting into a truck again,” Orozco-Sanchez says. “But standing there in front of all those people and getting the Goodyear Highway Hero award, boy, that was the greatest experience of my life. I’ve been very thankful for this wonderful program. It’s helping me to heal and to deal with the hard things I’ve been going through since the accident.”


Jorge, who lives 30 miles north of Denver, Col. was among five finalists recognized by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. for the life-saving rescue and roadside assistance efforts they provided while at their jobs as professional drivers across North America. He sustained minor injuries when he pulled free four-year-old Peyton Nicklas and her one-year-old sister, Morgan, as flames and smoke intensified following the horrific head-on collision of their SUV with his 2000 Freightliner Century.


“I just feel happy they’re alive,” Orozco-Sanchez told the Denver Post after the accident. “Because they’re going to get to have a happy life. It will be difficult without their mother.  I tried to save her, but I couldn’t.”


Colorado State Patrol Trooper Gilbert Mares, who was at the scene of the accident as a trained accident reconstructionist, says it’s not uncommon in these situations for people like Orozco-Sanchez to feel guilty for not being able to save others. But he shouldn’t.


“Mr. Orozco-Sanchez went above and beyond his duties as an ordinary citizen in assisting others involved in that crash, particularly considering the amount of force he experienced in that collision,” Mares says.


“It takes a special kind of person for someone to do what Mr. Orozco-Sanchez did without the benefit of the extensive training that we first-responders undergo,” says Mares, who also teaches periodically at the Colorado State Patrol Academy. “It also takes a great deal of courage to walk into a burning wreck.


“He was truly risking his life doing what he did,” he adds. “I think it’s very important that Goodyear recognizes the courageous actions of drivers like Mr. Orozco-Sanchez with this high-profile award.”


An independent owner/operator, Orozco-Sanchez was hauling grain on Oct. 28, 2008, eastbound on Highway 392, north of Greeley, Col., when an SUV suddenly crossed the center line and crashed head on into his tractor trailer rig. After impact, the truck pushed the SUV backward down the road for about 200 feet. As the vehicles stopped moving, a dazed Orozco-Sanchez felt himself drifting, when he thought he heard a voice urging him to get out of his wrecked truck.


He stepped out of his truck and staggered to the SUV. While the smoke made it difficult for him to see, Orozco-Sanchez says he thought he could hear the voice of a little girl crying. Working with a passerby who used a fire extinguisher to fight back the flames, he peered into the back seat of the SUV, from where the sound was coming. That’s when he saw one of the girls in her car seat.


At first, he fumbled with the seat and then suddenly, recalling his knowledge of child car seats as he has two young children, he got one of the girls out of the SUV. But when he went back, the fire got bigger and the smoke was so thick, he had trouble seeing into the vehicle. He was finally able to remove the other girl. But he couldn’t go back to get the girls’ 27-year-old mother, Melissa Nicklas, before the SUV’s fuel tanks ruptured and exploded, creating an inferno. She died in the crash.


Orozco-Sanchez sustained burns on his arms from the rescue and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was treated. The fire reduced his truck cab and the SUV to rubble, along with burning the side of a nearby building.


For his courageous act, Orozco-Sanchez was named the 2008 Highway Hero at a special awards banquet during the Mid-America Trucking Show. With the award, he also received a $10,000 US Savings Bond, a plaque and a specially-designed ring.


“I’m very thankful for what Goodyear did for me,” Orozco-Sanchez says. Following the award ceremony, Orozco-Sanchez says he’s participated in dozens of interviews. He’s also had numerous conversations with people who’ve read about him in local papers and in trade magazines.


“Talking about the accident has made it easier for me to deal with the death of the girls’ mother,” he adds. Plus, Orozco-Sanchez is seeing a professional counselor to deal with his misplaced feelings of remorse and guilt.


For Orozco-Sanchez, personally, the award couldn’t have come at a more welcome time. At the time he was given the award, his insurance company was still fighting over who should pay to replace his truck even though his policy was current. With no truck and trailer, he’s had no income. On top of that, he misses his pint-size buddy, Onsa, a Chihuahua, who hasn’t been seen since the crash.  


Orozco-Sanchez says before he received the award, he felt discouraged and ready to give up on the idea of ever driving trucks again. Now, he intends to get a new truck and trailer and return to driving once his insurance claim is straightened out. He says the company for which he drove as an owner/operator has already told him that they would like to have him back.


“Trucking is the best job I ever had,” he adds. “Now, I can see my life heading into a different direction.”


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