NC paramedic rescues partner after multi-vehicle ambulance crash

Atrium Health Union EMS Paramedic Chuck Nix aided injured Paramedic Madison Hackney after their ambulance was struck by two vehicles

Théoden Janes
The Charlotte Observer

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — If that pickup truck had just stopped at that stop sign at the base of Sikes Mill Road, where it converges with Highway 601, there would have been no story here.

Nolan McBride and his 3-year-old daughter, Merritt, would have continued down 601 toward Monroe on their way home from his church league softball victory. The Atrium Health Union EMS ambulance — with paramedic Madison Hackney behind the wheel and partner Chuck Nix riding shotgun — would have been arriving a minute or so later at a fire station as they finished their shift.

Unfortunately, that pickup truck didn’t stop on Monday evening. It never even slowed down, Hackney says.

Instead, it came barreling onto the highway at the exact wrong moment, giving Hackney enough time to slam on the brakes but not enough time to avoid striking the truck as it crossed into Hackney’s northbound lane. That collision put the ambulance into the southbound lane, head-on into the path of the 2020 Chevrolet Traverse that McBride says he was driving around the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour.

The Traverse crumpled and burst into flames on impact. Within less than a minute, the seats inside were cooking, and little Merritt’s car seat was already starting to melt.

“If I would have rolled up on that scene as a paramedic,” Nix says, “I would have thought we would have had at least one fatality, several critical patients. It was a horrific event.”

But in the end, although McBride and Hackney were banged up, Merritt and Nix walked away with no serious injuries. None of the four individuals in the pickup truck that caused the wreck were seriously hurt, and three people in a fourth vehicle that crashed while avoiding the pile-up also escaped with minor injuries.

And in the end, although two of the men are being hailed as heroes in the aftermath, both say the same thing: Others in the same situation would have done the same.

The initial impact

Madison Hackney and Chuck Nix were almost done with their day, having just finished some reports and en route to finish their shift at a fire station on the edge of Unionville.

Hackney says she was going about 55 when she caught a glimpse of the pickup truck hurtling toward the stop sign, and she hit the brakes as hard as she could as soon as she realized the truck wasn’t stopping.

(A spokesman for the N.C. State Highway Patrol said four people were in the truck, and that troopers are not yet able to release the name of the driver pending an investigation. The spokesman said troopers were told that “the stop sign snuck up” on them.)

“Hold on, hold on, hold on!” Nix told Hackney. A collision was unavoidable.

Upon impact, the airbags deployed inside the cab of the ambulance, and all they could see was smoke. An instant later, though they never even saw it coming, they got hit again, hard, this time by McBride’s Chevy Traverse.

“I was just scared to death,” Hackney recalls.

When the ambulance finally came to a rest, Hackney was in severe pain. She thought her ribs were broken. Her hand had swollen, she says, so it looked like there was a tennis-ball-sized bubble on it. She was able to get her seat belt undone, but her door wouldn’t open. Hackney was able to place a distress call that set other first responders into motion, but was in no position to help anyone herself.

Meanwhile, Nix could see a fire was already raging toward the back of the ambulance.

“The truck’s on fire, girl, you gotta get out,” he said to his partner.

Hackney, now in a panic: “Chuck, I can’t move. I cannot move. I can’t breathe.”

Nix stayed calm, but worked quickly, putting his focus into getting her safely out of the ambulance. Once they were clear, Hackney collapsed onto the road, and from the ground she realized — about the same time Nix did — that it was not the ambulance that was on fire, but an SUV about 5 feet from their ride.

“That’s one of the most conflicting events I’ve ever had,” Nix says. “I was conflicted because I wanted to stay with my partner. ... At the same time I knew there was somebody in that car that was on fire. I’ve seen a person burn in a vehicle and it’ll sear into your memory forever.”

Nix left her side only because an off-duty paramedic who had happened onto the scene promised to stay with Hackney, and at that point Nix rushed to go help the occupants of the burning SUV.

But he’d find that there were no occupants.

“I didn’t think anybody could walk away from a vehicle in that kind of damage,” Nix says. “But somehow, he did.”

A fire inside the car

Up to that point, the most stressful situation Nolan McBride had been in that evening was during the church league softball game, at which he’d bet his brother Boe $100 that he could hit more home runs in the game than Boe could. They ended up tying 1-1.

Normally, McBride — who is 29, executive director at Mako Medical Laboratories and on the board of directors at Union Academy School — goes to the games without his wife and kids (their other daughter is 4 months old). But on Monday, he brought his 3-year-old along and let her play on the playground. His mom met them there to supervise while he patrolled center field for the Lee Park team.

Just after 8 p.m., McBride buckled his daughter into a car seat installed behind the driver’s seat and handed his iPhone to Merritt so she could watch videos on YouTube Kids on the way home. Twelve minutes later, as they were coming down Highway 601, he saw the truck blow through the stop sign.

Everything happened quickly. He saw the ambulance hit the truck, and then in the next instant, he was hitting the ambulance head-on. Almost immediately, a fire broke out in the SUV’s engine block.

The next sequence of events unfolded in about 15 seconds, McBride says: As he got his seat belt off, he tried to open both front doors, but neither would budge. He tried to break the front windows, but couldn’t. He scrambled into the back seat and tried to break another window, to no avail. But the rear right passenger door opened, so he unbuckled Merritt from her car seat, used his free arm to shield her from the flames that were already licking at them, and got them free to safety.

“Then probably 30 seconds after that,” McBride says, “I turned around and you could see our entire interior was melted away. It started busting all the air bags and everything from the heat. ... You could see (the driver’s) seat was already completely melted, and it was starting to melt (Merritt’s) car seat.

“So we got out just in the nick of time.”

McBride says that normally, when he goes to softball games alone, he drives his much smaller Ford Fusion sedan. He realizes it could have been even worse if he’d gone head-to-head with the ambulance in that.

He also acknowledges that if had been knocked unconscious, or if crushed metal had pinned him in place, there’s a chance both he and his daughter would have been severely burned — or killed — in the fire, which fully consumed the car with alarming speed.

“There was no one there that could have got us out quick enough,” he says.

“I mean, the closest person to the scene was the EMS guy — and he was helping his colleague get out of the car.”

The heroes of the story

The following evening, McBride’s father, Tim, posted photos and a video of the aftermath of the crash and gave a summary of what happened. In it, he wrote: “Because of his fatherly love, he saved their lives.”

Nolan McBride shrugs off the hero tag, though.

“I don’t see it as being a hero,” he says. “I just see it as being a dad, I mean, I think anyone would have done the same thing to try and get their kid out of the car.

“As it is every day, God is the real hero.

“God definitely took over and watched us, and I believe he watched over everyone there. I mean, there could have been a lot of casualties with 11 people involved in a four-car wreck. So I think we owe it all to God.”

Nix shares the sentiment. While marveling at McBride’s actions, the 47-year-old paramedic says: “How he got out on his own, with a smaller vehicle like that hitting us head-on, I have no idea. I think God was looking out for everybody.”

Hackney — who had some nasty bumps and bruises but escaped serious injury, and was out of the hospital by 4 the next morning — thinks the same could be said for her partner.

That Nix was looking out for everybody, too.

“He not only saved my life,” says Hackney, 35, as she fights back tears, “but his first reaction was not for himself. It was for everyone else involved. And —”

She pauses, collecting herself. “He’s just a hero. He really is. He didn’t think about himself. He thought about everybody else.”

“She’d have done the same thing,” Nix says quietly.

“Yeah, I would have,” Hackney continues. “But I couldn’t. I think that’s what is frustrating. We’re in this business to help people, and I felt helpless that I couldn’t help others. It’s a sad feeling. So I’m just glad he stepped up, and made sure everybody else was OK, and checked on everyone else before he even thought of himself.

“I’ve been here four years, and I joke at work that I’ve never even dented a mirror on one of our ambulances. ... And to sit here and know you were behind the wheel and totally obliterated an ambulance and could have possibly harmed other people — even though it wasn’t my fault — it’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking.”

She pauses again. Then adds:

“But ... God was looking out for each and every single one of us. Out of all these people involved, everybody’s alive. And I’m so thankful.”


©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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