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In the wrong place at the right time

On July 28, 2016, Staff Sgt. Christopher Chaves, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, was returning from the Venice airport when an accident unfolded right in front of him. Chaves applied a tourniquet and splint the driver’s leg on scene. The truck driver, Paul Enrico Gheorghe, a resident of Roveredo in Piano, Italy, is still recovering at home with his leg intact due to Chaves’ efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush/Released)

On July 28, 2016, Staff Sgt. Christopher Chaves, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, was returning from the Venice airport when an accident unfolded right in front of him. Chaves applied a tourniquet and splint the driver’s leg on scene. The truck driver, Paul Enrico Gheorghe, a resident of Roveredo in Piano, Italy, is still recovering at home with his leg intact due to Chaves’ efforts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush/Released)

Paul Enrico Gheorghe, a resident of Roveredo in Piano, Italy, overturned truck and trailer sits at the bottom of a bridge after its tire blew and crashed July 28, 2016. Staff Sgt. Christopher Chaves, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, was returning from the Venice airport when the accident unfolded right in front of him. Chaves applied a tourniquet and splint the driver’s leg on scene. (Courtesy photo)

Paul Enrico Gheorghe, a resident of Roveredo in Piano, Italy, overturned truck and trailer sits at the bottom of a bridge after its tire blew and crashed July 28, 2016. Staff Sgt. Christopher Chaves, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, was returning from the Venice airport when the accident unfolded right in front of him. Chaves applied a tourniquet and splint the driver’s leg on scene. (Courtesy photo)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --

It was just another day in Pordenone, Italy, for an Air Force firefighter who was driving home. When his training and experience were needed to save someone’s life.

 

On July 28, 2016, Staff Sgt. Christopher Chaves, 31st Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, was returning from the Venice airport when an accident unfolded right in front of him.

 

A semi-truck pulling a trailer swerved as its tire blew out and flew into his lane, forcing him to slam on his brakes. As truck’s tire slammed into Chaves’ car, he swerved to avoid being hit by the trailer.

 

“Just as I got control of my car, I saw the truck was out of control and was heading towards the guardrail on the side of a bridge,” said Chaves. “After I pulled off the highway and parked my car, I looked up and the truck was nowhere to be seen.”

 

The semi-truck had nosedived 30 feet over the side of the bridge. Chaves raced to see what the scene looked like below.

 

“I got out of the car and there was this terrible stench in the air,” explained Chaves. “As I approached the edge of the bridge where his truck went through, I noticed what the terrible stench was - the driver was towing pig guts, ears and feet.”

 

Chavez said he could see more pig remains and truck parts than he could see grass, as he made his way down to the Italian truck driver.

 

“In order to get to him I had to climb through bushes that felt like cacti and skate through the pig mess,” said Chaves. “Every other step I took I would either slip or sink. I was ankle deep in raw pig and I hadn’t even gotten to the guy yet. As a firefighter I’m taught that time is everything. Not knowing the condition he was in, my instincts kicked in and I realized I had to keep going to get to him as fast as possible.”

 

When he got to the driver, Chaves notices his leg had several compound fractures, with bones protruding from several different directions.

 

“The guy’s leg was a mess,” said Chavez. “From the knee down, his leg was being held on by just a few tendons and ligaments. I quickly took off my shirt and used it as a tourniquet.”

 

After tending to the driver, Chaves saw the truck was spewing engine liquids everywhere. Part of his Air Force training includes making the scene as safe as possible, so he climbed into the overturned cab to turn off the engine.

 

“When I got in the cab I couldn’t get a grip on the keys in the ignition, it was all slimy?” said Chaves. “Eventually I did get a grip of them, and was able to shut the truck off.”

 

With the scene under control, Chaves had to figure out a way to transport the driver. According to Chaves, the man was mentally stable and doing well despite his extensive injuries.

 

“There was no way I was getting him out there alone,” explained Chaves. “The slope was too rough and it was all covered in pig parts. I knew he had to be taken out with a helicopter.”

 

Fortunately, a bystander on the bridge above called the police. From the time of the crash to the time the helicopter arrived at the scene, Chaves had the opportunity to think about what all just had happened.

 

“There isn’t anything he could have done to prevent what happened,” said Chaves. “It’s called an accident for a reason, I just happened to be in the wrong spot at the right time.”

 

In Chaves’s line of work, accidents happen all the time. It was his quick thinking and experience as a firefighter that enabled him to save the driver’s life and limb.

 

”When you’re a firefighter and someone’s life is potentially on the line there’s no time for critical analysis,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Rivera, 31st CES assistant chief of training. “In those rare instances training is what we as firefighters depend on. Chavez has been training since technical school on how to safely remove a patient from a vehicle and render the scene safe. His countless hours of classroom and hands-on training created muscle memory which allowed him to act instinctively.”

 

The truck driver, Paul Enrico Gheorghe, a resident of Roveredo in Piano, Italy, is still recovering at home with his leg intact due to Chaves’ efforts.

 

“It’s a tremendous feeling to know that what I did that day saved that man’s leg,” said Chaves. “As a service member and a firefighter we’re taught to be on alert at a moment’s notice. You never know when the training you learn throughout your military career might come in handy. I’m glad I was able to put them to use when the time called for it.”