Local heroes dive into action
Residents swim to stranded driver following crash on 60
Making a split-second decision in an unexpected and dangerous crisis is not an everyday occurrence, but locals Shelbie Henson and Ryan Rakoski literally dove into action recently when another man’s life was at stake.
A collision on Highway 60 on May 10 sent a local FedEx driver, Eric Bergen, 56, careening into a pond, and Henson and Rakoski immediately swam out to the vehicle in an effort to save Bergen’s life.
The crash occurred at 2:22 p.m. when a semi truck stopped on the highway to make a right turn into the MODOT facility. Three vehicles were stopped behind the truck when Bergen pulled up and stopped.
Henson was the third car in line waiting on the truck, directly in front of Bergen, and she noticed the FedEx driver pull his delivery van to the left side of the lane.
“I thought he was going to try to pass, and I thought he was really in a hurry,” Henson said. “I found out later that he saw the truck coming and moved so he wouldn’t hit me.”
With traffic stopped on the highway, another driver failed to see that traffic was halted and collided with Bergen’s FedEx van.
“He was just propelled across the road and into the pond,” Henson said. “I immediately put the car in park – I didn’t even pull off the road – and jumped out. The scariest part was seeing someone in the truck trying to open the door and I could see water filling it up.”
Bergen said he was knocked out almost immediately after the impact. When he regained consciousness, he was waist-deep in water in the cab of his truck.
Henson said she didn’t have time to think or consider her options, she kicked off her shoes and swam several yards out to the FedEx truck, calling out to see if the driver had managed to get out while she swam.
“When I woke up, I tried to get out through the door, but it was bent and wouldn’t open,” Bergen said. “I opened the window, and water was pouring in.”
Henson attempted to help Bergen open the door to the truck with no success, and once he was able to open the window she helped to pull him out of the truck as it rapidly filled with water.
“When I got there, it was almost full, there was maybe a few inches of air at the top of the truck,” she said. “His whole head was gushing blood. The water around us was turning red.”
“To tell the truth, I don’t think I would have made it out of that window if Shelby hadn’t been there to pull me out,” Bergen said. “I was thinking I was going to die.”
Once Bergen was out of the delivery van, Henson asked if he was OK and if he could swim. He said he couldn’t.
“I was pretty weak,” Bergen said. “I couldn’t hardly hold myself up, I was shaking, and I think I was in shock.”
Henson said she couldn’t carry Bergen through the water and knew she had to keep him afloat until help arrived.
“The water was deep, maybe 12 feet,” she said. “I couldn’t touch the ground. So I put my feet on the window and held on to him and to the mirror.”
At that time, Ryan Rakoski, an employee at MODOT across the street from the pond, arrived at the scene and swam out to the truck.
Rakoski said he and some co-workers were working inside the MoDOT warehouse when they heard the collision. Several employees raced out to the highway, with some checking on the other motorist and others grabbing flags and beginning to direct traffic to ensure there were no further collisions.
Rakoski went to the pond, where he saw Henson struggling to keep Bergen afloat, and he instinctively swam out to help.
Rakoski said he helped hold Bergen’s head out of the water, and he and Henson continued to speak to Bergen to keep him conscious as they waited for firefighters or EMTs to arrive at the scene and help get Bergen out of the pond and into an ambulance.
“We got him up and I stood on the window sill, but it was deep,” Rakoski said. “That young lady was under water. All you could see was her head as she held him up.”
Henson and Rakoski said they were in the pond for between a 30-45 minutes. When firefighters arrived at the scene, they located an aluminum boat on the shore. Three firefighters waded out to the truck, pulling the boat and lifted Bergen over the side to get him to shore, into an ambulance and to the hospital.
Henson said that by the time, she reached the shore of the pond and was freezing and sore. She said she called her sister to ask for a ride home.
Later in the week, she was able to get in touch with Bergen to check on him and see how he was doing.
“He is sore from head to foot,” she said. “He’s bruised and he has a head wound, but I hadn’t stopped thinking about him. He said I was his hero, but he didn’t realize how grateful I was to him. If he hadn’t pulled out like that, what would have happened to me?”
Bergen suffered a head wound that required 26 stitches, and as of Friday, he was still recovering from the accident.
Both Rakoski and Henson said they simply did what they believed was right, and what they hope others would have done for them if they had been in a similar situation.
Rakoski also pointed out that several other MoDOT employees played a role.
“There were a lot of people involved,” he said. “It was good to see everyone get involved. These guys got out there and checked on the cars that were in the road then moved on to the next problem. The speed limit is 65, and people pop over those hills. The situation could have gotten a lot worse really fast. But there were a lot of people involved to make the situation safe.”
“They saved my life,” Bergen said. “I wish there were more people like them. What do you say? I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough. God works though people, and God was there with me that day. My whole family feels the same way. We’re so grateful.”