To Goodyear’s 25th North American Highway Hero winners, the actual hero is 9-year-old Abby Bern. Despite their lofty life-saving efforts, they insist they’re merely “Abby’s Angels.”
Although truck driver Richard Filiczkowski, of Zion, Ill., jumped into an icy South Dakota pond on April 26, 2007, and saved Abby’s life, he and wife Janet say the little girl is the “real hero. She really is. She was so strong. I couldn’t believe that this little girl could be so strong. She was just amazing.”
Abby and her mother, Marty Bern, helped Goodyear officials crown Filiczkowski, now of Bountiful, Utah, as the 2007 Highway Hero at the Mid-America Trucking Show.
Janet Filiczkowski was driving the C.R. England rig along a quiet stretch of Interstate 90 about 100 mi. west of Sioux Falls when she saw a car cross four lanes of traffic and careen into a pond. She yelled for her husband, who was resting in the sleeper compartment. Filiczkowski quickly dressed, grabbed his shoes and ran a quarter-mile to the scene.
“I dove right in because I saw Abby pounding on the car’s back window. My only instinct was to get her out of the car as soon as possible. In situations like that, seconds count,” Filiczkowski said.
Also inside the car and submerged in 8 ft. of water was Abby’s father. Rescuing the Worthington, Minn., girl, then 8, proved to be easier than pulling an unconscious Jeff Bern, a 42-year-old pediatrician and father of three, from the driver’s seat.
Two other men joined Filiczkowski in the water, but the car doors were stuck. They somehow managed to open the rear hatch, and Filiczkowski carried the girl to Janet, who worked to warm the girl and distract her from the rescue attempts on her father.
Bern was held in his car by a seat belt. One of the men found a pocketknife on shore and used it to cut part of the seat belt; Filiczkowski cut the remainder, but the man’s legs remained lodged under the steering column.
One rescuer freed one of the man’s legs, and Filiczkowski dislodged the other. After 10 minutes, the truck driver finally pulled the father from the car and swam to shore, but it was too late.
“I wish I was faster for him. My only regret, I just wish I was faster,” Richard said.
Marty Bern was so thankful for Abby’s rescue that she invited the Filiczkowskis to her husband’s funeral. Richard and Janet considered it an honor and attended the services.
Donn Kramer, director of marketing of Goodyear commercial tire systems, said, “Richard’s name is on the award, but his wife and tandem truck driver Janet is equally deserving. Together their heroics are truly inspiring. They are a wonderful couple.
“Richard and Janet Filiczkowski and the three Highway Hero finalists are all heroes in our book. Their families and friends should find comfort in knowing they helped others without regard for their own lives,” Kramer said.
Founded by The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1983, the Highway Hero program recognizes professional truck drivers and the often unnoticed, life-saving rescues and roadside assistance they provide as their jobs take them across North America.
The other Highway Hero finalists included:
• Rick Tower, of Yreka, Calif., driver for Earl Bryant Trucking — Tower rescued an 82-year-old woman from her sinking car after it left the roadway and landed in the swift Klamath River.
• David Virgoe, of Innisfil, Ontario, driver for Wilburn Archer Trucking — Virgoe swerved his empty tanker truck to avoid three street-racing cars, slammed into the median guardrail and veered off the highway to avoid colliding with oncoming traffic. He died in the accident.
• Ronnie Greene, of Regina, N.M., driver for A. Passmore & Sons — Greene rescued a pregnant woman from a brutal attack after she was run over by her boyfriend’s truck.
For more information, visit www.goodyear.com/truck/news/hero.html.