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The Saving of NASCAR’s Jack Roush
It was Friday night, and Larry and Donna Hicks were about to watch the 6 p.m. news at their lakeside home in Palos Verdes Estates near Troy, Alabama. Hicks was a 52-year-old retired sergeant major with the Marines, now working as a conservation enforcement officer for the state of Alabama. He had come home from work half an hour early, and he and Donna had talked about going to the movies, but decided against it.
The newscast was just beginning, when they looked out the window and saw a small plane hovering on the shore of Palos Verdes Lake.
“I wonder if he knows about the power lines,” Larry said, just as the plane suddenly stopped, rolled over, and headed straight for the lake. Hicks was already running out the back door when the plane hit the water, shouting to his wife, “Call 911! I’ll see if I can help the pilot.”
Luckily Larry’s brother Wayne had left a 14-foot aluminum johnboat, complete with an electric trolling motor, at the lake in preparation for bass fishing that day, and then didn’t pull away. was not introduced. Donna called 911 and ran outside in time to see Larry commandeering the johnboat, heading for Air-Cam, which was about 100 yards offshore.
Years earlier, when Hicks had been stationed at the Marine Air Corps Station in Iwakuni, Japan, he had spent two and a half months, part-time, in an intense search and rescue program. A Major brought him in because he thought Hicks would be good at it since he was muscular and was into bodybuilding. The training was specifically aimed at rescuing pilots who had fallen into water in fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. Hicks learned how to get pilots out of planes that had crashed upside down. However, he remained in the telecommunications unit and never had the opportunity to use his specialized training.
The Air-Cam’s engine was hot when it hit Palos Verdes Lake and the plane was smoking in the water. High-octane aviation fuel from a ruptured fuel tank floated on the surface, creating greasy patterns. The rear half of the plane and a broken wing were sticking out of the water. Hicks got out of the boat on the wing and attached a line to the plane to keep the boat from floating. The strong smell of gas assaulted his nostrils. It was only later that he thought of the danger of the plane exploding.
The water was murky and Hicks had trouble finding his way underwater. The plane had crashed in the middle of an underwater “stump field”, but luckily it hadn’t hit any trees. The first time, Hicks ran out of air and was forced to surface without locating the pilot. The second time, he felt the back of the man’s neck under his hand. After another trip to the surface, he took a deep breath and came back down a third time.
Larry’s military training – the repeated exercise of what to do until it became second nature – took over: “Locate the pilot, extract the pilot…” Hicks reached for the belt. driver safety; fortunately, it was the one he recognized by touch thanks to his military training. He let go of the belt and the pilot floated in his arms. Hicks swam to the surface, dragging the man with him. The pilot had bones running through his legs and his feet were turned the wrong way.
The man was bleeding from his nose and mouth and was not breathing. He had drowned. The Trojan police had now arrived on the shore of the lake. Larry yelled at the officers, “He’s not breathing,” and he heard one officer say to another, “He’s dead.
Hicks hoisted the man up against the sticky wing above the water and put a modified Heimlich maneuver under his ribs and pulled up to get the water out of his lungs, then started CPR modified. The inert figure spat out water and blood, then on the fifth breath, began to breathe. “I made him breathe again,” Hicks shouted to the rescue unit on the shore.
Hicks gripped the plane’s wing with his left hand, lying on his back in the water, supporting the pilot on his chest with his right arm to keep his head above water. He felt a tingling sensation from the aviation fuel, which worsened until he was in great pain. He later discovered that the top layer of his skin had burned off.
The salvage unit brought out an extra boat, put the pilot on the backboard and floated him to shore. Larry tried to follow the four members of the rescue team as they exited the lake, but his legs gave out. He and the pilot were taken to hospital in Troy.
As Hicks was being treated for gasoline burns to his upper body, he heard the helicopters arriving to airlift the pilot to the University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. After a decontamination shower, Hicks was released.
It was learned almost immediately that a light plane had crashed, piloted by celebrity Jack Roush, owner of a NASCAR and Winston Cup car since 1988. An airplane enthusiast, friends of Roush had arranged for he flies the Air-Cam, a specialized aircraft built specifically for photography, as a birthday present.
Roush was put on a ventilator first, with a trauma team working on him. He had inhaled water and gasoline and suffered closed head injuries, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, compound fractures to his left leg and broken ankles. He couldn’t remember anything from the time of the accident until he woke up in the hospital that weekend.
Amazingly, six days after the accident, Roush was running his business by phone from his hospital bed. On Sunday, he had arranged for Larry and Donna to be flown by private jet to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit him.
Six weeks later, Roush flew a plane from his home in Michigan and hobbled on crutches at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, overseeing his four-car Winston Cup team. Larry and Donna were at his side.
Larry Hicks has no doubt that a higher power was at work in the incredible rescue of Jack Roush. If the Air-Cam had hit the high voltage power lines instead of the support wires like it did, the plane would have gone down in flames. Had he crashed to the ground or hit a tree in the underwater stump field where he landed, Roush would have been killed instantly. If Larry and Donna had gone to the movies that night, as they had discussed, or if they had simply been in another part of the house, they would not have seen the plane crash and Jack Roush would dead. If Wayne Hicks hadn’t left the johnboat ready to go, there would have been no rescue.
But, most amazing of all, Hicks was one of a small percentage of the population with the specialized knowledge to save a pilot in an upside-down plane from a watery grave. And, another thing that was needed to save Jack’s life is that Hicks is a man of action who didn’t hesitate to put himself in danger to save a stranger’s life.
Larry Hicks received numerous honors following his heroic rescue of Jack Roush, including the Marine Corps Medal for Heroism, the Carnegie Award for Heroism from the Carnegie Foundation, the Kiwanis International Robert P. Connally Medal for heroism and the Society Medal of the Sons of the American Revolution for heroism. The rescue story appeared in people magazineand Larry and Jack were on the cover NASCAR illustrated.
Larry takes great pride in having upheld the United States Marine Corps code to serve his country with honor, courage, and commitment, with selfless service.
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