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The Saving of NASCAR’s Jack Roush
It was Friday night, and Larry and Donna Hicks were getting ready to watch the six o’clock news at their lakeside home in their Palos Verdes estate outside Troy, Alabama. Hicks, a 52-year-old retired Marine Corps sergeant major, is now a conservation law enforcement officer in Alabama. He came home from get off work half an hour ago, and he talked to Donna about going to see a movie, but eventually gave up.
The TV news had just started, and they looked out the window to see a small plane flying along the shore of Lake Palos Verdes.
“I don’t know if he knows about power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane shuddered to a stop, rolled over, and plunged straight into the lake. Hicks had already run out the back door when the plane plunged into the water, yelling at his wife behind him: “Call 911! I’m going to see if I can help the pilot.”
Luckily, Larry’s brother Wayne had left a 14-foot aluminum fishing boat with an electric trolling boat on the lake that day for bass, but it didn’t show up. Donna called 911 and ran outside in time to see Larry directing John’s boat towards the Air-Cam about 100 yards offshore.
Years ago, when Hicks was stationed at Marine Corps Air Base in Iwakuni, Japan, he spent two and a half months (on a part-time basis) working on an intense search-and-rescue program. A major got him in because he thought Hicks would be good at the sport because he was muscular and loved lifting weights. The training is specifically aimed at rescuing pilots who have fallen into water in fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to save pilots from crashed planes. However, he has remained in the telecommunications department and has not had the opportunity to use his professional training.
The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake, and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane aviation fuel from ruptured fuel tanks floated on the surface in greasy patterns. The back half of the plane and the severed wing emerged from the water. Hicks climbed from the boat onto the wing and tied a rope to the plane to keep the boat from drifting away. A strong smell of gas wafted through his nostrils. Only later did he think of the danger of the plane exploding.
The water was murky, and Hicks had a hard time navigating underwater. The plane crashed in the middle of the underwater “stump field”, but luckily didn’t hit any trees. On the first touchdown, Hicks ran out of air and was forced to return to the surface without finding the pilot. The second time, he touched the back of the man’s neck with his hand. After surfacing again, he took a deep breath and dived a third time.
Larry’s military training—repeated until it became second nature—takes over: “Find the pilot, free the pilot…” Hicks fumbles for the pilot’s seatbelt; luckily, it’s his Army training We know by feeling. He let go of his seat belt and the pilot floated into his arms. Hicks swam to the surface and pulled the man. The pilot had bones in his legs, and his feet turned in the wrong direction.
The man’s nose and mouth were bleeding and he was not breathing. He drowned. The Trojan police had reached the shore of the lake by this time. Larry yelled at the officers, “He’s not breathing,” and he heard one officer tell another, “He’s dead.”
Hicks pulled the man onto the wing attached above the water and performed a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs, pulled up to drain the water from his lungs, and began modified CPR . The sluggish figure coughed up water and blood, and took a fifth breath. “I got him to breathe again,” Hicks yelled to the rescue team on shore.
Hicks grabbed the wing with his left hand and lay on his back in the water with his right arm across his chest, keeping the pilot’s head above the water. He felt a tingle from the jet fuel that got worse and worse until he felt excruciating pain. He later discovered that the top layers of his skin had been burned away.
The rescue team took out another small boat, put the navigator on the backboard, and floated him ashore. As the four members of the rescue team stepped out of the lake, Larry tried to follow them, but his legs gave way. He and the pilot were taken to Troy Hospital.
As Hicks was being treated for gasoline burns to his upper body, he heard a helicopter arrive to airlift the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
Almost immediately there was news of the crash of a light aircraft piloted by Jack Roush, a celebrity who has owned a NASCAR race car and a Winston Cup car since 1988. A friend of Roush’s who is an airplane enthusiast arranged for him to fly the Air-Cam, a purpose-built aircraft specially built for photography, as a birthday present.
Roush was initially put on a respirator and a trauma team was working on him. He inhaled water and gasoline, resulting in closed head injuries, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, a compound fracture of his left leg and a fractured ankle. He doesn’t remember anything from the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.
Amazingly, six days after the accident, Roush was managing his company by phone from his hospital bed. By Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to fly to Birmingham, Alabama, on a private jet to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush was flying from his home in Michigan, hobbled around the Dover International Raceway in Dover, Delaware, on crutches, overseeing his fleet of four Winston Cup cars. Larry and Donna were by his side.
Larry Hicks is convinced that there are higher forces at work in Jack Roush’s incredible rescue. If the Air-Cam had hit a high-voltage power line instead of a support wire, the plane would have crashed into flames. If it crashes on the ground or hits a tree in the underwater stump field where it lands, Roush will be killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to the movies that night, as they discussed, or just gone to another part of the house, they wouldn’t have seen the plane crash and Jack Roush would have died. If Wayne Hicks hadn’t left John’s boat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.
But, most amazingly, Hicks is one of the small crowd who has the expertise necessary to save the pilot in an upside-down plane from his watery grave. And, one more thing that is necessary to save Jack’s life is that Hicks is a man of action who won’t hesitate to risk his life to save the life of a stranger.
Larry Hicks has received many honors for his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the Carnegie Medal for Heroism from the Carnegie Foundation, the Kiwanis International Robert P. Connor Son of Lee Heroism Medal and Society for Heroes of the American Revolution Medal.rescue stories appear in people magazinewith Larry and Jack on the cover nascar pictorial.
Larry showed great pride as he obeyed the United States Marine Corps Code and served his country with honor, courage and commitment, and selfless service.
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