Barrie man comes to the rescue during truck crash mayhem
Matt Compeau, along with his wife Jennifer and two-month-old daughter Amelia, were in the middle of a series of truck crashes during last week's winter storm that wreaked havoc on eastern Ontario and Quebec highways. He put himself in harm's way to assist truckers in peril. IAN MCINROY/BARRIE EXAMINER/POSTMEDIA
While watching tractor trailers colliding and some bursting into flames – along with rescuing some of the drivers — Barrie resident Matt Compeau’s military training probably saved lives.
Compeau, a member of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, was returning home last Tuesday when he was caught in the wicked winter storm that slammed into Quebec and eastern Ontario, stranding motorists and causing pileups along Highway 401 and its extension, Highway 20 in Quebec.
With him were his father (who was driving) and mother along with his wife Jennifer and two-month-old daughter Amelia.
Compeau, who is a teacher at St. James Catholic School near Tottenham, was just about into Ontario when all hell broke loose during the blizzard.
“The whole scene just opened up in front of us,” Compeau recalled from his south-Barrie home. “We saw a number of tractor-trailers jack-knife across the span of the road from the oncoming direction all the way over to the right-side shoulder, making a V-shape or funnel.
“There was no way out so my dad tried to stop. But our vehicle lost traction on the ice and we slid towards the trucks. We hit a bunch of debris that was on the road from one of the trailers,” he said. “That crushed in the front passenger side of our Ford Escape and spun us around.
“My dad looked out the window and saw fire underneath one of the transport trucks and yelled at us to get out of the vehicle,” Compeau said. “We had a transport truck coming straight towards us. It was happening in slow motion and pretty scary. Thankfully that truck hit another truck trailer instead of us.”
Once the truck came to a standstill, Compeau grabbed his newborn, who was still in the car seat, and his mother, father and wife scrambled out of the Escape and crawled under the nearby truck trailer, off the roadway and to safety.
But Compeau’s experience was far from over.
“While we were doing this, I didn’t see anybody get out of the truck cab. So I went back underneath the trailer towards the other cab and on the ground there was more than an inch of diesel fuel flowing out of all these trucks. It was splashing over my boots and onto my pants,” he said. “That was a slow-motion time as well.
“I’m a naval reservist and part of our training involves first-aid training and I also have firefighting training from when we are on the ships. So I knew it was a bad situation and the fire was spreading.
“I could see it was already under the truck cab, but I didn’t see anybody get out so I knew somebody was probably still in there,” he added. “I had to get them out, otherwise they weren’t going to make it.”
He found a female driver inside — he later found out her name was Nancy — who had been knocked unconscious at one point.
“The bottom of her cab was on fire, her seatbelt was stuck and she was trying to get out of the cab,” Compeau said. “I pulled her out of the door and onto the ground and carried her to the clear part of the road. Thankfully, no more trucks were sliding into us.”
He yelled to another trucker, named James, who managed to avoid the collisions, to get a fire extinguisher because the fire was rapidly spreading.
And then a driver came out of one of the doors of a cab saying there was another man still stuck inside his truck.
“Then my wife yelled out that there was a man on fire. He was climbing out of the truck cab. I ran towards this guy and his back was on fire, his hair was on fire and his arms were on fire,” Compeau said. “He was just flaying and stumbling around on the road.
“I yelled at him to get down on the ground and roll. When I got to him I was kicking snow and throwing snow on him and the fire went out.”
James showed up with the fire extinguisher, but to no avail.
“It was still really dangerous. I was covered with fuel. The fire was spreading. It was way too big and pretty much on us,” Compeau said. “Tires were popping and all the tanks were igniting and there were huge fire balls into the sky and really thick smoke.”
He and the uninjured truck driver dragged the burn victim to a clear spot on the road out of harm’s way.
After realizing there was no one else he could help, Compeau retreated to safety with his parents, wife and daughter and watched fire completely engulf his family’s vehicle.
By that time, emergency responders arrived.
“The military training definitely helped: keeping it together and no panicking,” he said. “There are so many things that could’ve been worse. Thankfully, no one ended up dying.
“God must have been there helping us out. He was definitely protecting me and my family.”
Compeau said with all the military training he takes, it doesn’t involve having your family right beside you
“No, it doesn’t. When you’re with the military, those friends have the same training as you.” he said. “But not with my two-month-old daughter and my wife and my mother and father by my side. That’s different. They haven’t been in training or done exercises.
“I don’t know if it’s irony or not, but that weekend I was considering going for firefighting refresher training out in Halifax instead of going on this family trip.”
He advised people to get first-aid and CPR training.
“People should be prepared and thank God for what they have.”