Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Brahm
“I watched as the driver tried to correct the loss of steering and over corrected. I heard the tires squeal as the car slid down the road, crashing through a fence, sending wood soaring through the air. Gravel and dirt were sent flying as the car drifted off the road and smashed into a tree. The sudden stop and rumble, as the front end of the car crumpled, was chilling. The front was completely destroyed on impact, and sent shrapnel hurtling through the air. Debris from the vehicle was strewn all around, as was the driver’s door, which was ripped apart upon impact.”
This was the description of a horrific car accident as seen by Coast Guard Fireman Dallin Matthews, a member of the Coast Guard Fire Department stationed at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, New Jersey, as he was driving home one afternoon in May.
While a normal reaction might be to simply call 911 after watching that type of nightmare unfold, Matthews instead let his training take over and he sprang into action.
“My immediate thought, with the speed of that impact and the debris scattered about, was that this person was going to need immediate medical attention,” said Matthews. “I pulled off immediately and had my wife call 911, while I went to check the driver. The vehicle’s front end was smashed in and the airbags had deployed. I examined the patient and checked for spinal injury. The driver had hit her head on the steering wheel upon impact, had a laceration on her right cheek and she was also bleeding heavily from her mouth. I checked her eyes and they would not dilate. She was also feeling nauseas, possibly indicating a concussion.”
Matthews’ quick response and cool demeanor came as no surprise to Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas Martinez, Matthews’ supervisor and fellow firefighter at the training center.
“Matthews has been a real asset to the unit since reporting,” Martinez said. “He has been self-motivated and is a model employee.”
According to Martinez, Matthews’ background as a wildland firefighter in Utah, before joining the Coast Guard, has helped him excel as one of the training center’s top dispatchers.
“His devotion to duty is apparent, both on and off the job, as displayed during his off-duty response to the motor vehicle accident at Higbee’s Beach,” said Martinez.
Matthews’ firefighter training, in conjunction with all of the training he received at Training Center Cape May helped him stay focused in that stressful environment.
“My firefighter training played a large role in teaching me to work fast and effective under high-stress situations,” Matthews stated. “Being able to care for the patient while actively observing the surrounding conditions is important.”
It was Matthews’ situational awareness that alerted him to the growing danger emanating from the damaged engine compartment. Matthews was faced with making a quick decision of whether to move the patient away from the vehicle or wait and hope that help arrived soon.
“I knew, based off the fluids now leaking from the vehicle, the increasing smell of fumes and the smoke starting to billow from the hood and the battery that was still providing power, that there was a growing chance of this vehicle catching fire quickly,” Matthews said. “I knew that it was time to remove the individual from the vehicle and get to a safe distance.”
After removing the driver from the smoking vehicle, the victim’s initial adrenaline from the accident lowered and the potential for her to slip into shock became a reality.
“I calmed the driver and had her concentrate on me to keep her mind off of what had happened. I asked her multiple questions as I tried to keep her focus on me,” Matthews said. “The driver slowly calmed down and began to cry feeling overwhelmed, but not slipping into shock.”
A short time later, an officer with the local police department along with paramedics arrived on scene. Matthews briefed the officer on the incident and passed information to the medics as they took care of the patient. The driver was taken to the local hospital and Matthews had some time to reflect on what had just happened.
“It’s a surreal experience. Being able to be a part of that individual’s life at such a critical moment for them, while they are absolutely alone and in need of help, is a life changing experience. These encounters have a way of imprinting themselves on you,” Matthews said.
For some people, it’s just about the money or the college, but for some, like Matthews, it’s about helping other people no matter the cost.
“I joined this service so when these moments present themselves, I won’t let the people who need me the most down and I also joined to serve my country, on or off duty and regardless of the dangers,” Matthews said.