Two young men from Southern California who met as strangers when they teamed up to save victims of a freeway crash 34 years ago died recently, within a period of four months. Jeffrey Robert Wieser, 63, late of Verona, Pa., died Oct. 3, 2015, and Thomas J. Norsworthy, 51, of Orange, Calif., died Feb. 2, 2016.
Each of them was awarded a Carnegie Medal for their rescue act, which took place in the early morning hours of Sept. 3, 1982. In separate vehicles, they were stopped in heavy traffic on Interstate 15 near Devore, Calif., when a pickup truck traveling at 65 m.p.h. crashed into the back of the last car in line. Flames broke out on the truck and on the car, which contained four young people, all of whom were knocked unconscious or stunned.
Wieser, then 29, a contractor, and Norsworthy, 18, a cook, witnessed the crash and immediately responded. Among them and a third man, they pulled three of the victims from the burning car, all of whom recovered from injuries and burns. The vehicle’s fourth occupant died at the scene, and Wieser sustained burns of up to third-degree to both feet when he stood in a pool of flaming gasoline during the rescue. For five weeks he was confined to a wheelchair.
On receiving his medal from the chancellor of the University of California at Davis, where he was then a student, Wieser handed it to his parents, whose teaching over the years, he said, “guided my response.”
Norsworthy was a salesman at the time of his unexpected death. He returned to Southern California in 2011 after living in the Midwest since 1992, where he worked as an industrial and commercial electrician, building hospitals, courthouses, schools, and a host of other installations. He was living in Joplin, Mo., when a catastrophic tornado struck the city on May 22, 2011, killing 158, injuring 1,150 others, and causing $2.8 billion damage. Norsworthy lost his home, tools, and personal effects in the disaster and left the area to make a new beginning.
Wieser died of small-cell lung cancer. “Knowing that this battle was one that he would most likely lose,” his wife, Vicki Campbell, said, “Jeff repeatedly vowed to fight it with courage, grace, and dignity, and at this he succeeded. His strength and courage were an inspiration.” Regarding his rescue act, Campbell said that Wieser was haunted by the fact that one person in the car didn’t make it. “Toward the end of his life,” she said, “he thought about the accident and saw the person’s face every day.”
Wieser was a native of Milton, Mass., and spent most of his adult life in California. He worked in hazardous waste remediation and recycling and then went on to remodel and renovate houses, insisting on quality workmanship and materials made in the U.S. An avid musician, Wieser played the bass guitar and was in a number of bands over the years. And he loved the Rolling Stones, Campbell said. “Anyone who knew him knew that he attended every U.S. tour, sometimes traveling to see them at several locations within a few months.” He shared his love of music with his nephew, Christopher Baker: “Not only did he open my eyes to different forms of music,” Baker said, “but he introduced me to different instruments as well. I got to play all the instruments he had–he let me explore them on my own.”