Archive for Monday, June 10, 2002

Hero’s determination key to Roush’s rescue

June 10, 2002


Jack Roush's lungs were filling with water, his life ebbing away on the bottom of an Alabama lake.

Ashore, Larry Hicks had seen the race car owner's plane crash and knew there was precious little time to employ the search and rescue techniques he had learned in the Marines.

A few minutes later on that April evening, Hicks brought the pilot to the surface but thought his heroic act was in vain.

"He wasn't breathing. He had drowned," said Hicks, a retired sergeant major. "That was very obvious."

Still, he gripped a wing of the light plane protruding from the lake with one arm and kept Roush's head above water with the other. Hicks held on, concerned that spilled aviation fuel surrounding the wreckage 100 yards from shore would erupt in flames.

"I started smelling the gas, and the right engine was smoking," Hicks said. "I thought it was going to blow up. I turned around and yelled to the my wife, `No matter what happens, Donna, I love you.'"

Then, Hicks propped up Roush on a wing and performed CPR.

"He began coughing up water and blood," Hicks said.

Unable to risk lifting the badly injured Roush into his small boat, Hicks fought cramps in both arms and the sting of spent fuel floating on the surface of the lake in Troy, Ala. Help came 15 minutes later.

Roush was alive, at least for a while, and Hicks was the reason.

At UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Roush fought for his life. Overcoming a serious head injury, a shattered left leg and broken ribs, he beat odds one doctor put at 20-1 against survival.

Six weeks later, Roush hobbled around on crutches at Dover International Speedway after piloting a plane from his Michigan home, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team with his familiar straw hat askew on his head.

Hicks, now a state conservation officer in Alabama, was with Roush much of the time at Dover, and marvels at his energy.

"To see where he's come from, from the time I got him out of the lake to where he's at now, it's an absolutely amazing recovery." Hicks said.

Hicks knows all about recoveries. He's completing his own speedy comeback from cancer.

"Back in December, they didn't think I was going to make it," he said. "Now, if I were to get cancer back and pass away tomorrow, my whole life has been blessed by this event.

"It's simply a wonderful feeling to save another human being, especially an individual who touches so many people."

Roush had been flying alone in a borrowed plane while celebrating his 60th birthday on April 19, two days before a race at Talladega Superspeedway. He hit partially obscured high-tension wires and crashed from an altitude of 80 feet.

"I was out of the chair before he hit the water," the 52-year-old Hicks recalled. "I shouted to my wife as I ran out the door; `Call 911. ... Call 911.'"

Hicks reached the plane in about two minutes, dived to the wreckage, saw nothing in the murky water about eight feet deep but felt around and determined no one was in the rear of the two-seater plane. On his second dive, he found the pilot and on his third freed the unconscious Roush.

A deeply religious man, Hicks corrects those who say he acted alone.

"No, we did a great job," he said. "Without the good Lord, Mr. Jack wouldn't be here."

Roush calls Hicks his hero, saying it would have been understandable had Hicks abandoned the rescue effort to save his own life.

"Diving repeatedly with all that fuel on the water? He didn't have to do that," Roush said. "I'm so lucky."

How lucky?

Roush crashed about 6 p.m., just a few minutes after Hicks arrived home from work.

Hicks was already prepared take his tiny boat out on the lake, but even that might not have been enough to save Roush had Hicks been doing anything but watching as the light plane approached.

In addition, had Hicks lived in a house he tried to purchase at the other end of half-mile-long lake at Palos Verdes Estates, he said he never would have seen the accident.

When Roush thinks about his rescue, he still smiles and shakes his head in disbelief.

"I liken the fact that I crashed into water rather than on land, that he was there and the boat was there to winning one of these big state lotteries on three consecutive days with three separate tickets," he said.

Informed later that he had rescued one of the most prominent car owners in racing, Hicks admitted he'd never heard of Roush.

"It didn't really strike me how many people this man affected until a month after this thing was over," Hicks said.

Hicks remembers his first meeting with a coherent Roush, two days after the crash. Both broke down and cried.

"It was extremely emotional," Hicks said. "For the longest time, we couldn't talk.

"I was in the war in Vietnam, a lot people were killed around me and I never got a scratch, but this was something totally different. Your life has a positive point, something that you can look back on and say, `I did something super special.'"

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