Passerby pulls trapped driver away from fiery I-35W crash

Patrol hails the quick actions of a man who towed Metro Mobility bus out of harm’s way.

Caley Emerson has gotten help in the past when he’s broken down on the road, so he’s always made a point out of helping stranded motorists he encounters.

But Friday morning, the State Patrol says, he went above and beyond the call on a Twin Cities interstate — likely saving the life of a driver pinned in her seat after crashing into a semitrailer truck.

Emerson used his pickup to tow the driver’s Metro Mobility bus clear of the burning truck moments after the southbound truck had jumped the median and came to a stop in the northbound lanes of Interstate 35W at Hwy. 36 in Roseville.

The patrol called his actions heroic. Emerson, 34, of Grand Rapids, Minn., said anyone would have done it. But he admitted he may have had a little help.

“I do believe in God, and I guess this reinforces that,” he said. “I usually have the right tools, so I make it a point to help people on the side of the road. It was weird how things worked. … I just happen to have a truck that would do the job.”

The freeway, heavy with morning commuters, parted like the Red Sea after the crash and allowed Emerson to get close enough to work. He ran up with a fire extinguisher, then hooked a strap to the bus and yanked it away with his truck, allowing rescue workers to cut out the trapped driver.

Patrol Lt. Eric Roeske said that Emerson probably saved the life of the driver, Rochelle Gunn, 38, of St. Paul.

“We’re very thankful that Mr. Emerson was there,” Roeske said.

No passengers were aboard the Metro Mobility bus, which was operated by First Transit, one of the contractors the Metropolitan Council uses to provide door-to-door service for the disabled.

According to Roeske, the semi was southbound on I-35W near Hwy. 280 shortly before 6:30 a.m. when the driver, Craig Bunton, 61, of Shoreview, lost control.

The truck crossed the guardrails and wound up blocking the northbound lanes, colliding with the Metro Mobility bus and setting off subsequent collisions with a truck and a van.

Emerson was in his Dodge Ram 3500 and on his way to the new athletic complex at University of Northwestern-St. Paul, where he works as a fence contractor, when he came upon the wreckage. Flames already were leaping from the truck’s engine, which had ignited from spilled fuel.

Gunn couldn’t get out of the bus because of her injuries and damage to her vehicle, which was plastered against the truck. Roeske said that if the bus had not been moved, it likely would have caught fire.

Roseville Fire Chief Tim O’Neill said it took about 15 minutes to extricate Gunn, who was taken to a hospital with noncritical injuries. Bunton also went to the hospital with minor injuries.

Roeske said it was unclear what had caused Bunton to lose control of his vehicle. The road was wet, and the truck reportedly fishtailed.

The crash created a major mess for commuters as the State Patrol closed northbound and southbound lanes of I-35W at Hwy. 36. Southbound traffic was diverted onto Hwy. 280 for nearly 90 minutes, until the southbound lanes were reopened at 7:50 a.m.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said the northbound lanes were reopened at 1:30 p.m. after authorities had investigated and cleaned up the scene.

It was the second fiery rescue this summer on the busy interstate. On June 29, one motorist pulled another from a burning car on I-35W in New Brighton. That rescuer somehow “bent the door in half” to free the driver, an astonished trooper said later.

Emerson, who had been reluctant to talk about what he had done and reportedly declined to be recognized, insisted that he had simply performed the way others would.

“I think [Gunn] would have been fine,” he said, “but it sure did help calm her down. She was pretty panicky.”

harlow@startribune.com 612-673-7768

kduchschere@startribune.com 651-925-5035

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