Overwhelming support for injured THP trooper; rescue efforts praised; truck driver asleep at wheel

11:23 PM, Mar 13, 2012   |    comments
  • Sgt. Lowell Russell/ courtesy the THP
  • Trooper involved accident on I-40W. 3/13/12 courtesy TDOT
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A trooper with the Tennessee Highway Patrol remained in critical condition Tuesday evening at UT Medical Center.  A semi-truck plowed into his parked cruiser on the shoulder of Interstate 40 around 3:00 a.m. Tuesday.

The wreck has resulted in an outpouring of support for injured Sgt. Lowell Russell as he fights for his life at UT Medical Center. The efforts by several individuals to rescue Russell from the fiery crash have also been lauded by family, friends, and coworkers of Russell.

Fiery Crash

Around 3:00 a.m. Tuesday, a tractor trailer smashed into Sgt. Lowell Russell's cruiser on Interstate 40 westbound near Gallaher View Road. Russell was parked on the right shoulder and had just completed a traffic stop when the wreck occurred. The impact sent Russell's vehicle across several lanes of traffic into the interstate's cement divider and then burst into flames.

A nearby Knoxville Police officer arrived and pulled Russell out of the driver's seat. An AMR ambulance service from McMinn County was returning home and came across the fiery crash moments later. AMR emergency responders quickly assisted, with one of the workers suffering burns that were treated at UT Medical Center. Interstate 40 westbound was shut down for more than four hours as crews worked to investigate the crash and clean-up.

Investigators say the driver of the transfer truck is 32-year-old Eric Lewis of Orlando, Florida. Lewis was en route from Pennsylvania to Texas and admitted he fell asleep at the wheel. A passenger/co-driver, 57-year-old Cleotha Nickles of Orlando, FL, was in the truck's sleeping cabin when the crash occurred.  Lewis and Nickles were uninjured.  A KPD officer said Lewis helped rescue Russell following the crash.

There have been no charges filed against Nickles at this time. Lewis faces felony aggravated assault and reckless endangerment charges.

Support for Lowell

Dozens of vehicles from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other local law enforcement agencies filled the parking lots at UT Medical Center throughout Tuesday. Several vehicles were from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, where Sgt. Russell began his career in law enforcement. The outpouring of support from the Monroe County native's coworkers and community was so large that the hospital opened the auditorium specifically for the group to gather together.

Those with close personal relationships with Russell raved about his work in law enforcement, but said his professional work is merely one facet of his overall positive impact on the community.

"I've known Lowell Russell for 14 years and he's a good friend of mine. He's got a big heart and he a lot of times think about other people before he thinks of himself," said Sgt. Randall Martin with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. "He is our midnight sergeant for the Knox region that includes 11 counties, so he is very good at what he does. When you work with him, you just get the feeling that you like him. He's funny. He's a little practical joker at times. But all in all, he's a wholesome individual."

Russell's work in law enforcement through the years gained recognition from his peers and the media. 10News reported in 2002 on Russell's compassion for a family whose daughter was killed in a car crash he responded to. Russell routinely visited the victim's family and played with the girl's surviving siblings long after the fatal crash.

Reporter's Note: Video of the 2002 story on Lowell Russell is attached to this page.  It can also be watched by following this link.

"I've known Lowell since we were in junior high school at Vonore. He has always been a giver. At a time like this, you see how much he has done," said Tommy Jones, a Sweetwater Police Department employee who worked with Russell at MCSO. "You just hate to see something tragic happen to someone like this, someone of his standards."

"Everybody loves Lowell. He has such a strong work ethic, a strong community ethic," said Jennifer Bledsoe, a detective with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. "The reason you see this type of crowd here for him is because Lowell will do anything for anybody. He's all about helping. He helped raise Frankie Watson."

Russell served as a father figure to Frankie Watson, a U.S. Marine from Sweetwater who was killed in Afghanistan in September 2011.

"Lowell had a lot of grief but carried himself very well after Frankie died. He has always been about others and kept in touch with all of the other troops that served with Frankie," said Jones.

Family, friends, and coworkers of Russell thanked the public for continued thoughts and prayers. They also expressed concern for the driver of the transfer truck and thanks to everyone who put themselves in harm's way to rescue Russell following the crash.

Rapid Rescue

First responders likely could not have been any closer to the wreck when it happened overnight Tuesday. An ambulance from McMinn County and an officer with the Knoxville Police Department came across the scene immediately after the crash.

The ambulance crew works for American Medical Response. Medic Freddy Leslie and Emergency Medical Technician Kristi Graham were leaving Knoxville after a transport when they saw Sergeant Russell's cruiser hit the barricade.

Police said the truck driver and Leslie quickly gained access to Sergeant Russell. Leslie emptied a fire extinguisher inside the cruiser.

"There was fire all around, in the back seat of the car and in the passenger seat of the car. I had to make the decision to either get him out or watch him burn, so I made the decision to get him out," said Medic Freddy Leslie.

Meanwhile, KPD Officer Andrew Keith was coordinating emergency response.

"As soon as we got him out they [AMR] went to work on him doing their medical stuff. That is probably one of the reasons he is not injured any further," said Keith.

Leslie suffered some injuries during the rescue. He was treated and released from the hospital for minor burns to his face.

Officer Keith said the truck driver who caused the crash also provided critical assistance and helped free Sergeant Russell from the demolished cruiser.

Colonel Tracy Trott issued the following statement regarding Tuesday's crash:  "Our troopers put their lives on the line every day to keep citizens safe. It is especially difficult when one of our troopers is injured in the line of duty. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sgt. Lowell Russell and his family during this difficult time. We pray for his recovery and thank him for his service to our state. He is one of Tennessee's finest. We are also grateful to our fellow law enforcement officers and first responders who were on the scene within minutes of this tragedy."

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