Crash and Burn: Reconstructing an Accident Scene | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


Crash and Burn: Reconstructing an Accident Scene


Published June 1, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 3, 2016 at 5:01 p.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Beth Howe

On the gray morning of December 1, 2015, Beth Howe tuned out the noise of passing cars and trucks as she walked to work along the narrow shoulder of busy Route 7 in Winooski. Most days, Howe drives from her Burlington home to her job on Water Tower Hill, overlooking Interstate 89's Exit 16. But every couple of weeks, when she wants to clear her head, she hops on a bus that stops in downtown Winooski, then walks one mile north, mostly uphill, to her office at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

Just after 8 a.m. on that day, the 43-year-old administrative assistant was approaching the busy I-89 underpass, toting a one-gallon water bottle in her backpack, when she heard a screech and a crunch from the highway above.

Danielle Houle-Charbonneau, a 45-year-old project manager from Swanton, had been driving to her office in Williston when she had to stop in the southbound lane on I-89, some 20 feet above Howe's route. Her BMW was the last in a long line of unmoving cars. An accident had occurred a mile south on the highway, and the morning commute was stalled. Houle-Charbonneau hoped she wouldn't be late for work.

She glanced in her rearview mirror — and saw a car barreling toward her.

When Houle-Charbonneau realized it wasn't going to stop, she jerked her steering wheel to the left, aiming her car toward the shoulder, away from the Subaru Legacy in front of her. She steeled herself for the impact.

When Howe heard the sound on the highway, she knew immediately what it was. As a teenager in her native England, she had been in a bad car accident.

"Does anybody need help?" Howe yelled in a thick English accent. She didn't expect to get an answer and figured she would keep walking and be at her desk in five minutes.

Then someone cried out, "Yes."

Howe, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall, scrambled up the muddy embankment, hopped a guardrail and landed on the pavement of the paralyzed interstate.

A Kia had rear-ended Houle-Charbonneau's BMW, then careened into a guardrail on one side of the southbound lanes. Houle-Charbonneau's BMW, its rear crumpled, was against the guardrail on the opposite side.

Howe dashed over to the Kia. Its driver, Tammy Thompson of Fairfax, was pinned between her seat and the dashboard. Her head was bleeding, but she was conscious.

"Oh, my God, my foot hurts," Thompson moaned. Howe looked down. Thompson's foot looked like it had become unhinged from her ankle: The tip of her white New Balance shoe was pointing toward her head.

Howe tried to calm Thompson. She glanced over at Alan Gott, whose Subaru had received a glancing blow from Houle-Charbonneau's BMW. Gott, a Georgia resident, stood by his car calling 911 on his cellphone. It seemed to him that Howe emerged from nowhere.

Howe ran 15 feet over to the BMW. Houle-Charbonneau was wedged between her seat and the dash. She had a gash on her forehead, and blood flowed into her eyes and onto her face. Her steering wheel had come detached and was lying by the stick shift.

"What's your name?" Howe asked.

"Danielle," she mumbled.

Howe darted back to Thompson, who was squirming to get out of the car, despite her mangled foot.

"You really need to sit still, sweetheart. You need to be patient," Howe told her. "Look out the window." Then she dashed back to Houle-Charbonneau.

Her BMW was slowly filling with black smoke and the acrid smell of burning rubber and plastic. Houle-Charbonneau, stunned and disoriented, was determined to roll her window up. Howe told her it should stay down.

Houle-Charbonneau complained that she couldn't see and kept gesturing as if to wipe hair from her eyes. But it wasn't hair — it was blood and skin from her wound.

"Don't do that, don't do that," Howe said quietly, brushing Houle-Charbonneau's hand aside.

Five minutes after Howe ran onto the highway, help arrived.

State Police Sgt. Cory Lozier works out of the St. Albans barracks and usually doesn't venture south of Georgia. But on this morning, he was on his way to a meeting in Williston. As he approached the traffic jam at Exit 16, he heard on his police radio the squawking of cops and first responders handling the earlier accident a mile south. Lozier figured that he was stuck in the backup from that incident when he saw smoke billowing from a car a few dozen yards ahead.

He turned on his blue lights, weaved through stopped traffic and hopped out near the smashed cars. He saw a tall woman with long brown hair dashing between them. He ran over to help.

Howe was standing near Houle-Charbonneau's door when she saw a small flame flicker in the back of the car. She puzzled for a moment over what could have caught fire in the trunk.

Then she realized it wasn't the trunk. It was the gas tank.

"Oh, crap, this isn't good," Howe thought. "We need to get her out of the car, now."

Seeing the flame, Lozier sprinted over.

They both realized instantly what had to happen. Their reflexes took over.

Lozier and Howe each grabbed one of Houle-Charbonneau's arms and pulled her out of the driver's seat.

Together they hurriedly walked her over to a guardrail.

A few seconds later, flames engulfed the BMW.

Howe stayed with Houle-Charbonneau on the guardrail, and Lozier returned to Thompson. He feared her neck or spine might be broken, so he was reluctant to move her.

But as the flames from Houle-Charbonneau's BMW intensified, the trooper worried that Thompson's car would also catch fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher from his cruiser and attacked the flames. It was like trying to douse a fire with a water gun.

Lozier stood by Thompson's driver's door to protect her from the flames, facing away from the fire as he pondered what to do next. The back of his neck was getting hot.

Just as he realized he had no choice but to get her out of the driver's seat, an ambulance crew arrived. They wheeled a stretcher to within arm's length of Thompson's car, and Lozier lifted her onto it.

A firefighter armed with a larger extinguisher quelled the flames in Houle-Charbonneau's car.

Howe sat on the guardrail with her arms around Houle-Charbonneau, whose shoes had been knocked off in the collision. Howe removed her own boots, rolled off her wool socks and put them on Houle-Charbonneau.

Then she called Houle-Charbonneau's husband, Pete Charbonneau.

"Your wife is being brought to the hospital," she told him.

Houle-Charbonneau was loaded into an ambulance. Lozier walked up to Howe and shook her hand. Howe had been calm as she checked on people, saved Houle-Charbonneau and looked after her. Lozier assumed Howe was an off-duty EMT or nurse who happened on the crash.

"No," Howe said. "I was walking to work, and I climbed the hill."

"Wow, I wouldn't have expected you to do all that," he said.

Lozier, who has 11 years of police experience, said it was one of the most chaotic and scary accident scenes he ever handled — and one of last winter's worst in the Burlington area. Thompson later told police that a strong glare from the early morning sun had blinded her and made it impossible to brake in time.

The interstate was shut down for two hours. Houle-Charbonneau and Thompson both suffered concussions and broken bones and were lucky to survive, according to Lozier. They were both hospitalized for days.

Houle-Charbonneau, a mother of four, has only scattered memories of that time — and she declined to discuss the extent of her injuries in an interview, except to say that her mobility is limited. Lawyers are sorting through insurance claims.

Several local television stations interviewed Howe in the wake of the crash, and Houle-Charbonneau's family tuned in. One of her children tracked down Howe's cellphone number. Houle-Charbonneau struggled for days to come up with an appropriate gift.

How do you tell somebody thank you for saving your life? Houle-Charbonneau wondered. Do you give a $25 gift card? Does that cover it?

An animal lover, Houle-Charbonneau settled on making a donation to Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides livestock and training for farmers to help eradicate poverty. Somewhere in Africa, a family received geese, bees and a goat in Beth Howe's name. Houle-Charbonneau printed out pictures of the animals and framed them. She had Howe's wool socks, too, washed and folded.

On a chilly January afternoon, Houle-Charbonneau and her husband stopped by Howe's workplace.

Houle-Charbonneau didn't remember what Howe looked like. She had no memory of the English accent.

They embraced.

Houle-Charbonneau then nervously passed Howe a gift bag.

Howe read a card explaining the gift and turned away, her eyes filled with tears. Howe and her family had a tradition of donating to animal rescue organizations. Days earlier, she had suggested the same to co-workers who wanted to honor her efforts along similar lines.

Howe and Houle-Charbonneau became friends, exchanging texts about their families and everyday life.

Houle-Charbonneau still wells up at the mention of Howe. She's come to believe that she was rescued by providence and that she will be called on, at some point, to do something important.

"Beth made a decision that day not just to continue on her way to work, but, rather, to make sure that people were cared for and received help and were safe, and I'm just thankful and grateful for the choice she made," Houle-Charbonneau said.

Yet, as she stood near the smoldering remains of Houle-Charbonneau's car on that December morning, watching the ambulances drive off, Howe wasn't pondering the choice she had made. She assumed she would never see the women she helped again. Howe was simply trying to figure out what to do next.

She could see her office, separated from the interstate by a patch of woods. There was only one thing left to do. Howe put her bare feet into her boots, slung her backpack over her shoulder, scrambled back down the embankment to Route 7 and walked to work.

Editor's note: This story is based on interviews with Beth Howe, Danielle Houle-Charbonneau, Vermont State Police Sgt. Cory Lozier and Alan Gott, along with state police records and media reports. Tammy Thompson did not respond to interview requests.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Crash and Burn: Reconstructing an Accident Scene"

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