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The Saving of NASCAR’s Jack Roush
It was Friday afternoon, and Larry and Donna Hicks were about to watch the six o’clock news in their lakeside home at Palos Verdes Estates outside of Troy, Alabama. Hicks is a 52-year-old retired Sergeant Major with the Marines, now working as a conservation enforcement officer for the state of Alabama. He had come home from work half an hour earlier, and he and Donna had talked about going to a movie, but decided against it.
The TV news was just starting, when they looked out the window and saw a small plane flying down the shore of Palos Verdes Lake.
“I wonder if he knows about the power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane came to a sudden stop, flipped over, and went straight down into the lake. Hicks was already ran out the back door as the plane hit the water, yelling behind him to his wife, “Call 911! I’m going to see if I can help the pilot.”
Fortunately, Larry’s brother, Wayne, had left a 14-foot aluminum lineboat, with an electric trolling motor, at the lake in preparation for bass fishing that day, he had not shown up. Donna called 911, and ran outside in time to see Larry steering the johnboat, heading for the Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards offshore.
Years earlier, when Hicks had been stationed at Marine Air Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he had spent two and a half months, part-time, in an intensive Search and Rescue program. A major got him in because he thought Hicks would be good because he was muscular and was going to lift weights. The training was aimed primarily at rescue pilots who had gone down in water in fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to get pilots out of planes that had crashed upside down. However, he remained in the telecommunications unit, and never had the chance to use his special training.
The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake, and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane air fuel from a ruptured fuel tank floated across the surface making greenish patterns. The back half of the plane and a broken wing were sticking up from the water. Hicks climbed out of the boat onto the wing and attached a line to the plane to keep the boat from drifting away. The heavy smell of gas assaulted his nostrils. Only then did he think about the danger of the plane blowing up.
The water was murky, and Hicks had trouble getting his bearings under the water. The plane had crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field”, but luckily it had missed hitting any trees. The first time down, Hicks ran out of air and was brought back to the surface without finding the pilot. The second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath, and came down a third time.
Larry’s military training – the next drill of what to do until it was second nature – took over: “Locate Pilot, Extract Pilot…” Hicks felt for the pilot’s seat belt; luckily, this was one he knew by heart from his military training. He released the belt, and the pilot flew into his arms. Hicks swam to the surface, pulling the man with him. The pilot had bones going through his legs, and his legs were turned the wrong way.
The man was bleeding through the nose and mouth, and he was no longer breathing. He was drowned. The Troy police had reached the lake shore by this time. Larry shouted to the officers, “He’s not breathing,” and heard one police officer say to another, “He’s dead.”
Hicks pulled the man up against the wing sticking out of the water and applied a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs and pulled up to get the water out of his lungs, and then began modified CPR. The restless figure coughed up water and blood, and then on the fifth breath, he began to breathe. “I gave him another breath,” Hicks told the rescue unit on the shore.
Hicks grabbed the wing of the plane with his left hand, lying on his back in the water, supporting the pilot on his chest with his right arm to keep his head above water. He felt a strong sensation from the jet fuel, which worsened until he was in excruciating pain. He later discovered that the top layer of his skin had burned off.
The rescue unit brought out an extra boat, put the pilot in the back and launched him ashore. Larry tried to follow the four members of the rescue team as they walked out of the lake, but his legs gave way. He and the pilot were transported to a Troy hospital.
While Hicks was being treated for the gasoline burns on his upper body, he heard the helicopters arriving to take the pilot away to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
Word came out almost immediately that a light plane had crashed, piloted by Jack Roush, NASCAR legend and Winston Cup car owner since 1988. An aviation lover, Roush’s friends had arranged for him to fly the Air-Cam , a special plane built especially for photography, as a birthday present.
Roush was initially placed on a respirator, with a trauma team working on him. He had ingested water and gasoline and suffered head injuries, ruptured ribs, a collapsed lung, a compound fracture of his left leg, and broken ankles. He didn’t remember anything from the time of the accident until he woke up in hospital that weekend.
Amazingly enough, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business on the phone from his hospital bed. By Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to be flown on a private plane to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush piloted a plane from his home in Michigan and drove around the track at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were next to him.
Larry Hicks has no doubt that a Higher Power was at work in Jack Roush’s amazing rescue. If the Air-Cam had hit the high tension power lines instead of the support wires as it did, the plane would have gone down in flames. If he had fallen to the ground or hit a tree in the submerged stump area where he landed, Roush would have been killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to a movie that night, as they had discussed, or just been in another part of the house, they would not have seen the plane go down, and Jack Roush would have has died. If Wayne Hicks had not left the john boat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.
But, surprisingly, Hicks was among a small percentage of the population with the specialized knowledge necessary to rescue a pilot in an upside-down plane from a watery grave. And, one more thing was needed to save Jack’s life, which is that Hicks is a man of action who did not hesitate to put himself in danger to save the life of a stranger.
Larry Hicks has been recognized with many honors for his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal of Heroism, the Carnegie Foundation’s Carnegie Award for Heroism, the Robert P. Connally International Kiwanis Medal for Heroism, and the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Medals for Heroism. The story of the rescue appeared in People magazineand Larry and Jack were on the cover NASCAR with pictures.
Larry shows great pride that he lived up to the United States Marine Corps Code of serving his country with Honor, Courage, and Commitment, with selfless service.
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