Their Lucky Star
by Duff McCutcheon
When the Ontario Provincial Police sent Merv Connolly a letter advising him he’d been nominated for a lifesaver award earlier this year, the Dutton, Ont.-based owner-operator couldn’t figure out why.
As a 38-year veteran, Connolly has witnessed countless accidents across the continent, and has helped out at many of them. But when he recently came to the aid of three St. Clair College students who’d flipped their car on their way back to Windsor, Ont., his actions caught the attention of the OPP.
“When my wife got the letter, I asked her to call them up and see if they got the right person, because to me, I didn’t do anything out of the ordinary,” says Connolly, who works for L.E. Walker Transport in St. Thomas, Ont.
Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for Connolly, but for the three victims, things might not have turned out so well were it not for his actions, and those of another driver who’d stopped at the scene.
January 4, 2005 had started much like any other day on the road for Connolly. He’d picked up a load in Toronto and was heading towards Windsor with multi-drop freight bound for the Carolinas – a typical run for him. It was rainy but mild, so ice wasn’t an issue on Highway 401 that day.
“I was approaching Windsor, just south of the scales, and noticed another truck about a half-mile ahead pulling off to the side of the road,” recounts Connolly. “I looked in the ditch and there was an overturned car with smoke coming from the front end. I noticed a puff of smoke and a bit of flame coming from the engine. I pulled over in front of the other truck, and ran to the overturned car. The other driver, a TNT guy, was already down there looking to see what had happened.”
While it wasn’t the most horrific accident scene Connolly’s ever witnessed, he quickly realized that the three needed help. One passenger had been ejected from the car, landing in the ditch before being struck by the car as it plowed in. Another passenger had been thrown some 20 feet from the car.
“At the time I thought that’s all it was. I helped the one guy out of the ditch and he was obviously hurt; the other guy was walking around in a daze and saying, ‘my friend, my friend.’ That’s when I realized there was someone else in the car – the driver. The vehicle had flipped over. Its roof was torn open and the driver was partially pinned under the car. I crawled into the car and he tells me he’s okay, but obviously quite anxious to get out. By that time, a few other people had arrived and we tried to lift the car to get him out, but we couldn’t get it up high enough,” Connolly recalls.
A police officer arrived next, adding to the complement of lifters. Connolly and the others managed to lift the car enough to free the trapped driver and the officer got him out. Other than some cuts and bruises, the driver was fine, but the guy who’d been thrown and then hit was in rough shape – he had a broken collarbone and internal injuries, including a ruptured spleen.
“That guy almost didn’t make it,” noted Connolly.
Connolly later learned that the cause of the upset was nothing more than bravado: the driver had been showing off his driving skills when the car began hydroplaning on the wet highway. He lost control, and took off through the ditch. None of the occupants had been wearing seatbelts.
Connolly never heard anything more about the accident until he was contacted by the OPP with an invitation for him and his family to a gala event in Kettle Point, Ont. where he was honored alongside other civilian and police heroes for his roadside actions.
“The awards banquet was in April and was held near the Kettle Point native community. They had a peace drum during the ceremony, which was just awesome,” says Connolly.
He says he was truly taken aback by the honor because he did nothing more than he normally would at coming upon an accident scene – and he’s seen plenty over the years, not all with happy outcomes.
Connolly recalls an occasion many years ago in New York State when he came upon a delivery van that had been rear-ended by a five-ton truck. He raced out of his own truck to find a dead driver and a severely injured passenger whose scalp had been sheared off. Connolly reattached the man’s scalp as best he could and waited for emergency personnel to arrive. Unfortunately, that fellow didn’t make it.
Another in Quebéc, a transport went off the highway, but its trailer remained up on the road. A car hit the trailer and then caught fire. “The impact decapitated the driver and there were two young people trapped in the burning car. I grabbed my fire extinguisher and almost got it out but ran out of foam. By the time I got another extinguisher, the fire had engulfed the car and there was nothing I could do,” he laments.
But despite these and other tragedies Connolly’s seen on the road, he loves life behind the wheel. He’s been around trucks all his life, starting work at his dad’s trucking business – Connolly Transport in London, Ont. – washing tankers on Saturdays for $5 a shot. When he was 16, he bought his own tandem stake truck, eventually working his way up to his first tractor, a 1966 White Mustang with a gas engine and a two-stick transmission. He’s been on the road since, largely as an owner-op, and while he’s thinking about semi-retirement in a couple of years, he can’t fathom a life entirely removed from trucking.
“I know if I’m retired and I get driving down the road and see a big truck going by, I’ll miss it terribly,” he says. “I love to see the country.”
But when Connolly does decide to slow down a bit, he’ll have plenty of people to share his time with. He’s got seven kids, and he recently built a large garage to house various projects he has planned for the years ahead. Besides perch and pickerel fishing on Lake Erie, and golf on weekends, Connolly has his eye on a project car to work on so he can keep his hands greasy.