One year ago, Sgt. Lowell Russell was parked on the side of westbound Interstate 40 finishing a traffic stop. That's when the trooper with the Tennessee Highway Patrol was nearly killed when a transfer truck plowed into his cruiser and set the wreckage ablaze.
Police and rescue workers were near the scene and were able to pull an unresponsive Russell from the fiery crash. As coworkers and loved ones gathered at UT Medical Center throughout the day, the outlook for Russell's survival was so low that many people had to make a conscious effort to avoid speaking about him in the past tense.
One year after the nearly fatal crash, friends and family are happy to still be able to talk about what a great person Lowell Russell is in present tense.
"Thank God," said dear family friend Allyson Mason. "I see Lowell at least once a week and either talk or text with him every day. We go to church together and he is a living testament to the miracle of God."
"Every time I go through this area [on I-40], I think about Sgt. Russell, think about our friendship, and how quickly I could have lost him," said THP coworker Stacey Heatherly. "Lowell and I just celebrated our 15th anniversary. We both went through the academy and joined THP at the same time 15 years ago on March 1. He has always been a great buddy and we tease each other a lot."
Heatherly feared the overnight phone call she received March 13, 2012, seemed to signal the end of her time with Russell.
"My captain called and said Lowell was in the hospital. Basically, her comment was he may not make it. He's not going to make it," said Heatherly. "I was preparing myself to say goodbye to my dear friend."
"I just remember getting that phone call from Cory, Lowell's brother," said Mason. "I didn't know what he was going to be telling me at 3:12 a.m. and was afraid to answer the phone. When he told me Lowell was hit by an 18-wheeler, I was thinking about Lowell and I was thinking about Frankie [Watson] and how it had only been six months since we lost Frankie."
Russell served as a father figure to U.S. Marine Frankie Watson, a hometown boy from Monroe County who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. In the weeks after the crash, Russell suffered from memory loss and would occasionally ask about Watson.
As difficult as the situation was emotionally, Lowell was beginning to make significant strides towards survival with plenty of support from the community. Restaurants and banks throughout the area organized financial contributions to help cover medical expenses. Musician Bucky Covington performed at a benefit concert for Russell at Sequoyah High School. Thousands of people joined the Facebook page Prayers for Lowell Russell and sent constant messages of encouragement.
"It was amazing to see the progress Lowell made just in that first week after the crash," said Heatherly. "Just a few months later, there was a point over the summer that I had to go to a wedding and my husband could not go. So I called up Lowell and told him he was going to be my date. I had to pick him up and he still was very limited in his neck movement because of the broken and fused bones, but it was great to just be able to hang out as friends in a somewhat normal situation again."
The normal routine for Russell during the last year has involved a tremendous amount of physical rehab. The rehabilitation from severe injuries is ongoing today.
"He still goes to therapy three times a week. He still has a lot of problems with the left side of his body. His voice is still very limited. He has a hard time swallowing still so he has a hard time eating. It takes him about twice as long to eat as most of us, so he is dealing with that. But overall considering where he was last year, you have to say he is doing great."
Russell has some issues with his voice, but manages to maintain communication with supporters through Facebook. On Wednesday he posted a message stating, "One year ago today changed my life forever. I owe a special thanks to God for putting the right people in place to save my life on March 13, 2012, at 2:50a.m. Freddy Leslie, Kristi Elkins Graham, Andrew Keith, Steve Taylor, Dylan Cox, Tabitha Ford and Dennis Stevens, thank you for your courage and determination while rescuing me!"
Russell also wrote that the last year has been long with lots of therapy, some improvements, and minor setbacks. Overall, Russell wrote that he is still slowly moving forward.
"He works so hard every day in his therapy with his voice, his vision, and all sorts of things," said Mason.
While Russell still has a long way to go, his friends cannot help but marvel at how much his physical condition has changed in the last year. They also note how his personality has not changed a bit.
"Lowell hasn't changed. He's still the good old Lowell that I've always known," said Mason.
"He's still going to aggravate me and poke fun at me. I told him the only reason God let him stick around is to irritate me," laughed Heatherly. "Seriously, it is amazing how far he has come. It is absolutely amazing. It is a miracle."
Russell is not physically able to return to work with the Tennessee Highway Patrol as of yet. While he continues to recover, Russell has worked to raise money for the Frankie Watson Memorial Scholarship Fund. Those efforts include helping with an upcoming motorcycle benefit ride.
"I look forward in seeing a lot of friends on April 6, 2013, when we have the 1st Annual Frankie Watson Motorcycle Ride and road dedication in Frankie's memory," wrote Russell on Facebook.
The road dedication Russell refers to is when a section of Highway 411 will be named in honor of Watson on April 6. Full details on the benefit ride event can be found at this Facebook link.
The driver of the tractor trailer who admitted to falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into Russell faces several criminal charges. Eric D. Lewis is charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and failure to drive in a single lane.