Carnegie Medal presentation by Calif. Highway Patrol: Heroism ‘necessary to stop and acknowledge’
By Susan Winlow, Features Editor
Daily Republic, Fairfield, Calif.
Perry Hookey relives the horrific morning of Jan. 10, 2013, every morning he drives to work as a paramedic at Medic Ambulance Service. That morning he came across semi-truck driver William D. Ballard trapped in his burning rig, hanging upside down from his seat belt in the cab of the tractor.
The Vacaville, Calif., resident, who was standing on stage Feb. 20 with Lance O’Pry of Napa, Calif., bowed his head and wiped away tears as he relived it again—this time in front of an auditorium full of friends, family, and officers at the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Academy in West Sacramento. Hookey and O’Pry, plus Stockton, Calif., resident Donnie Navidad, received Carnegie Medals for acts of extraordinary civilian heroism that CHP Commissioner Joseph Farrow called “necessary to stop and acknowledge.” Farrow called the three men humble and shy, and, he quipped, “They want this event to be over very quickly.”
While the event was over in due time, the vivid memories of what sparked the earning of the medals will continue for each of the three men. Hookey, in an earlier interview, said he cried at the time of the accident and he still cries to this day—and he knew he’d be crying at the CHP ceremony. “I remember it every day,” he said. “I remember him driving by me that morning.”
Hookey also remembered the shotgun blast-type sound and seeing the onset of a fire as he came across Ballard’s 18-wheeler that had plummeted over the side of an overpass in Vallejo, Calif. Hookey, who was off-duty at the time, stopped his vehicle, and adrenaline kicked in. “Adrenaline is an amazing thing,” he said of the fateful morning that brought him and O’Pry together as they both worked to help Ballard.
Hookey remembered peeling back the fiberglass of the tractor and reaching in. Ballard’s shoe was burning and he was upside down. Hookey, who was burned during the rescue, couldn’t get Ballard’s seat belt to unlatch. They frantically searched for a knife but no one had one, he said. “I had to put my weight up into him to release the seat belt,” he said, as the fire began building and the fiberglass started melting.
Despite the heroic efforts of Hookey and O’Pry, Ballard died at the hospital. Hookey rode with him in the ambulance and said he still questions what he did, or what he could’ve done, to maybe save him. Ballard, whom Hookey calls Billy, lives on with Hookey. After the accident, he began getting Facebook requests from Ballard’s family. They met up with him at his Vallejo job location in what Hookey called a “tear-jerker” moment.
Ballard played guitar, and he was a cyclist, just like Hookey, who is heavily involved in cycling events that include the annual Tour de Cure bike ride for the American Diabetes Association. Ballard’s family brought Hookey one of his guitar picks. “I carry it with me when I ride,” Hookey said.
Like Hookey and O’Pry, Navidad still agonizes over the day that eventually brought him to the medal ceremony. Navidad was at the Oakland Coliseum during an Oakland Raiders game on Nov. 24, 2013. A woman caught his eye, and the eye of many others, as she was poised 67 feet above them. As the 100-pound woman began to fall, Navidad put himself directly underneath her in an attempt to break the fall.
“I didn’t get to hang on to her,” he told the audience. He paused to wipe the tears away. “That was my sole (concern but) she bounced off me,” he said. “When they took her to (the hospital), they said she wasn’t going to make it.” But she did, Navidad said. (See accompanying article.)
Hookey, O’Pry, and Navidad are three of the 9,757 people from the U.S. and Canada who have won the award since its inception in 1904. Hookey and O’Pry are the second recipients of the Carnegie Medal in their respective cities.
The awards, said Douglas R. Chambers, the Hero Fund’s director of external affairs, are given to those who risk their lives in an extraordinary manner in an attempt to save another person. The Commission vets about 20 to 25 possibilities each quarter, taking a lengthy time to investigate the incident and the surrounding factors before making a decision, Chambers said after the ceremony. Presenting the medals in person is not the norm. “It’s unusual,” Chambers said. But when they can, they jump at the chance to meet the recipients.
Hookey said earning the medal is a “humbling” experience—another experience to go along with the one that changed his life forever. “You’re never guaranteed tomorrow,” he said. “Appreciate what you have today . . . don’t assume you have tomorrow. It’s taught me (that) you really need to appreciate life.” He added: “My job actually teaches me that, but this highlighted and emphasized it.”