At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 12, Mindy Sanders was checking out a customer at the Valero Convenience Store on Georgia Highway 83. The store, also known as the Country Store, sits at the intersection of Georgia Highway 83 (also known as Bostwick Highway) and Sandy Creek Road.
She can’t recall what the man was buying because at that time, suddenly, “It sounded like something exploded.”
Winn Brown, a gregarious 49-year-old man who lives in Monroe was traveling west on Sandy Creek Road at the same time with his wife, Andrea. The couple was returning from a wedding reception at Lake Oconee and were following a white pickup truck. The truck, says Brown, was driving normally, observing the speed limit and the couple was keeping pace. “He was driving fine,” recalls Brown.
When the couple began to approach the intersection of Georgia 83 and Sandy Creek Road, Brown says he told his wife there was a stop sign ahead and she needed to start slowing down. The truck in front of the couple did not.
“I never saw a brake light,” Brown says. “I said a prayer but before I could finish the thought, he was going through the intersection.”
Ethan Roberts was standing at the back of a Ford F 150 pickup truck at the gas pumps of the convenience store. He was catching up with a friend, Joah Plumley, 18, of Madison, who had stopped for fuel. While the two were talking, Roberts heard the frantic screech of rubber tires trying to catch purchase on hot asphalt.
Then there was a sound “like a cannon,” Roberts says. Roberts ducked down behind the truck and peered over to see a gold 1997 Ford Super Wagon van strike a white Chevy pickup truck square on the driver’s side door as the truck ran the stop sign of the intersection. The violent collision caused the truck to skid off the road and slide into a fuel pump. The van rolled on its side and slid onto the edge of the parking lot. Roberts, 23, stood up. When the truck hit the pump about 20 feet away from him, it exploded and caught fire immediately. “It was just gone,” he says.
According to Georgia State Patrol reports, the Chevy, driven by White Plains resident Corey Justin Schneider, 30, was traveling west on Sandy Creek Road and “failed to stop for the stop sign at the intersection… immediately upon entering (Bostwick Highway) the vehicle was struck in the driver’s side by a 1997 Ford van. The impact caused both vehicles to travel off the roadway and enter the parking area of a convenience store where the Chevrolet 1500 struck a gas pump…”
Schneider died at the scene. Morgan County Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Stone says authorities believe the force of the crash killed Schneider. “We believe he was dead before the fire ignited,” he says. “We believe the impact killed him.”
The van, driven by revered local artist Eugene Swain, rolled to its side. Swain, 61, of Buckhead, would later die from injuries in the wreck while at Atlanta Medical Center. His wife Glenda, 65, a passenger in the van, remains in critical condition at Atlanta Medical Center. Both were life flighted from the scene says Sgt. Justin Howard, Georgia State Patrol. Two helicopters were positioned both north and south of the convenience store to transport the Swains to Atlanta.
Howard says he was working a traffic detail in Jasper County when the wreck call came over his radio. When he was given a location, he knew immediately where to go and had a good idea what could be waiting. “I’m familiar with the intersection,” says Howard. “I thought, well, here we go again.”
Seconds after the collision, Brown says he told his wife to call 911, jumped from the truck and ran to the store and yelled for Sanders to punch the emergency cut off valve. She had done that, she says. She had also called 911. Roberts says he ran to the Chevy but was forced back by the heat. Brown says after he left the store and made it to the Chevy, “The truck was too involved at that time.”
“There was nothing we could do,” he says.
Chief Stone estimates the fire that consumed the truck, and part of Plumley’s truck, raged at between 1,200 to 1,500 degrees for the 10 minutes or so that it burned. On Monday morning as Stone was investigating at the convenience store, he picked up a piece of molten aluminum about the size of a potato from the parking lot of the store near the ruined gas pump. It was melted and disfigured.
Aluminum melts at 1,221 degrees Fahrenheit.
Roberts says he saw Glenda Swain hanging upside down inside the van with a seatbelt constricting her throat. Brown was next to him. “He said that lady was dying,” says Brown. Brown reached up and ripped out the shattered window with his hands. He then pulled out the van’s dashboard that was restricting entry. The two men decided that the 5’8”, 145 pound Roberts should go in first. Roberts handed Brown his Kershaw knife and climbed through the van’s window. Roberts said he lifted Glenda Swain to free the seatbelt and Brown reached in and cut the seat belt. Roberts said he cradled Glenda and told her and Eugene that help was on the way. “We couldn’t fit them through the windshield,” Roberts says.
Next to the van, the fire raged.
Brown says at one point he called 911 again and urged them to “send everybody you got and send helicopters because they are going to need to be life flighted.
He also urged Roberts to come out of the van.
He says Roberts looked up at him out of the gaping hole that was once a front window and said “I can’t leave her in here.”
When Sgt. Howard arrived at the scene, the fire consuming the Chevy had been extinguished. He says the vehicle had been damaged to the extent that he, and other officers could not determine its make or model. Someone found a Chevy hubcap and the search began from there.
Howard and Sgt. Jeremy Hoffman, Madison Police Department , Morgan County Coroner Adam Carter and two tow truck drivers began sifting through the debris of the truck trying to find some indication that would lead them to Schneider’s identity. A gray camper shell had jettisoned from the truck during the wreck. The men knew there had been two dogs with the driver at the time of the collision. Both dogs had died, also.
Howard used both the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office and the Madison Police Department Facebook pages to request help in identifying the driver of the Chevy. He posted what he knew, the type of vehicle, the two dogs traveling with the driver, the place, time and a phone number to the Georgia State Patrol Communications Center with a plea for help. Within 30 minutes, he says, he got a call from a woman who believed the driver “was her friend.”
Howard noted Schneider’s White Plains address and kept working. Then, he says, Schneider’s mother Vicki Schneider called the Georgia State Patrol Communications Center. Howard was told she was “hyperventilating and in a panic.” He was told she was concerned because her only child had been driving to his grandparents house in Good Hope but had never arrived. She also told communications that he had never come home and that he always traveled with his two dogs. She asked communications to have Howard give her a call.
Instead, he drove to her home in White Plains, down a “gravel road off a gravel road.” It was midnight when he found Vicki Schneider and it was a gamble. “I could have gotten down there and she wasn’t there and then I would have had to call her. I didn’t want to call. We don’t encourage that in any case,” he says. But she was there and at midnight, he described the scene.
“I know that was his truck,” he says she told him. “Is he dead?”
Brown says he could feel the heat growing from the Chevy and was urging Roberts to climb out of the van. Roberts sat Glenda upright and squeezed back out of the van and Brown says his mind was racing and the fire was raging. Chief Stone estimated that when the truck hit the gas pump the emergency valve automatically shut off the gas line from the tanks. The emergency shut-off switch from inside helped. In total, he estimated five to 10 gallons of gasoline stored in a pipe running to the dispensing hose erupted from a spark from the collision.
Roberts exited the van and Brown began asking if anyone had a tow chain. He would drag the van away from the flames, he said. Roberts says the wind had shifted and the flames were blowing toward the van’s gas tank. So Brown cried out for help. Someone brought him a tow strap.
“I couldn’t sit there and watch them die,” he says.
Brown and Roberts hooked the tow truck to Brown’s four-wheel drive truck and the van and began to pull. The truck couldn’t grab and the van, when it would move, was “unstable.”
About seven minutes had passed since the collision.
Chief Stone says dispatch records show that the first Morgan County Fire and Rescue units began arriving approximately 10 minutes after the horrific collision. Roberts says he doesn’t know how long it was but suddenly someone was putting water on the fire. Stone says Morgan County’s paid fire fighters arrived first and were assisted by the Bostwick station, the Brooks Road Station and the Fairplay Station. Once the fire was contained, the top of the van was ripped off and both Swains were pulled free and airlifted to Atlanta.
“If there’s anything I can do, I’m going to do it,” says Roberts. “I couldn’t live with myself if I sat there and watched someone die and didn’t try to help them.” Brown gives Roberts credit. “For him to jump in and say we need to get her… that means a lot to me,” he says. “It’s not something you can easily forget.”
Howard says on Thursday, three days before the fatal collision that took the life of Eugene Swain and Corey Schneider, another similar wreck occurred at the same intersection. At 3:12 p.m. a 2010 Toyota Tacoma driven by 62-year-old Jack Whitlock driving west on Sandy Creek came to the intersection and allegedly pulled out in front of a Dodge Durango driven by Marco Antonio Rivera, 58, Madison. Whitlock was transported with injuries to Morgan Medical Center, Georgia State Patrol reports state. Rivera was taken to Piedmont Hospital in Athens. At Saturday’s crash scene, GSP spray paint marking the collision points of the Thursday wreck were still fresh on the pavement, marked only by gouges created in the road when the Swains’ van hit the Chevy.
Last November a man died after his vehicle ran through the intersection and was struck by a work truck, pushed into a power pole and burst into flames. Ten years ago, Sgt. Howard says, he worked a wreck at the same intersection where a vehicle struck the gas pumps at the convenience store and ignited. “I don’t think people realize the volume of traffic that goes down that road,” he says. “We’re having a lot of problems with this intersection. Sanders, the store clerk says, “There’s always wrecks at this intersection. Something needs to be done about it.”
Howard says despite the tragedy, he marveled at the work of the fire fighters, the Morgan County Sheriff’s deputies and everyone who helped at a scene Brown called “horrific.”
He especially marvels at Brown’s and Roberts’ attempts. He doesn’t doubt they didn’t save at least one life. “What they did was heroic.” Howard has been a state trooper for more than 25 years. The 52-year-old trooper has a military bearing and crystal clear eyes. Why the Chevy never stopped, never applied the brakes at the intersection, will remain a mystery, he says. “We’ll never know. We’ll never know in this case.”
And that, he says, is not a small thing. “It definitely bothers you. We are trying to give somebody closure.”
Roberts says if he is ever involved in a collision he “hopes there is somebody around to help me.” Howard says in many instances he is amazed with the level of humanity during times of crisis. Madison’s Main Street Vet collected the two deceased dogs and are arranging to have them cremated and given to Vicki Schneider. It’s a small thing, Howard says, but important.
“When things like this happen, people always come together, especially in a small community.”
After Howard confirmed to Vicki Schneider that her only child was deceased, he says he asked her if there was anyone that could come to her White Plains home and give her comfort. She was distraught, of course, and was waiting on two friends. She told the trooper to leave, that he had done his job and she appreciated it. He told her he wasn’t staying because he was a trooper, he was staying because he was human.
He waited with the woman for an hour.