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Heroes take action, earn national awards

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It was a hot day in the summer of 2015. William Earley drove his sons, Lake Middle School students Liam and Ben, on a 70 mph stretch of Interstate 35 in Franklin County, Iowa—to the Woodbury residents, the middle of nowhere. They were headed to Colorado, via Omaha, Neb. Cornfields were all they could see.

Up ahead, 14-year-old Liam saw a semi-trailer pulled over and a smashed-up sports-utility vehicle (SUV) in the ditch. Moments later, 12-year-old Ben spotted another car off the road.

Eagle Scout instincts kicked in for William, and the result of the 48-year-old Woodbury man and his Boy Scout sons' quick actions earned them a national honor for responding to what turned out to be a fatal accident.

"We had to make a conscious decision to stop and then make a conscious decision to get involved and then use our training," William, an assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 9071, said. "You talk about why we stopped. It's just what we do. It wasn't a question. You stop and help."

For acts of heroism and service, three Meritorious Action Awards were presented from the National Council of Boy Scouts to Scouter William, First Class Scout Ben and Life Scout Liam during an Oct. 24 ceremony with Great Rivers District chairman Michael Westfall of Woodbury, representing the Boy Scouts of America Northern Star Council.

"As Boy Scouts, we pride ourselves in community service and helping others," said Scoutmaster Dan Stepan of Woodbury. "We're constantly emphasizing helping others. The slogan is to do a good turn daily."

Alfy Wolfram of North St. Paul, a friend of William's, fellow Eagle Scout and Silver Beaver recipient, submitted a letter about William, writing: "He exemplified the finest that Scouting has to offer."

Stepan said the award ceremony was the first Meritorious Action Award for Troop 9071 in recent memory.

"Those are pretty rare. The troop was pretty proud," Stepan said. "They didn't think much of it as far as seeking glory. But they were encouraged to apply for the award, because they were certainly deserving."

At the scene of the accident, Aug. 15, 2015, "I said we have to stop and make sure everyone's OK," William said in an interview Friday.

Two Lino Lakes, Minn., people died and four others were injured in the crash, which occurred after engine trouble caused the car from Minnesota to slow to 40 mph.

The driver of the SUV behind the car momentarily glanced at a distraction in the backseat, where her two children were seated. When she turned around again, there was no time to stop. She rear ended the car at 70 mph.

Good Samaritans stopped—the driver of the semi-trailer and an off-duty firefighter. William parked in front of the semi-trailer, and two other cars pulled over, as well. An emergency medical technician (EMT) came from one of the cars to help.

The SUV safely evacuated, but four passengers remained in the car.

"The entire back of the car was crumpled toward the front, pinning the rear seat passengers in their seats," William wrote in a statement days after the accident.

One man died in the driver's side backseat, while the woman in the passenger's side backseat was airlifted but then died two days later at an Iowa hospital. William responded to the man, checking his vitals—bloody and unconscious with a weak pulse—while the firefighter tended to the woman.

The driver of the SUV, whose head was bloodied—had frantically called 911, but she continuously repeated that she caused an accident and people were hurt. William asked to speak to the dispatcher, who he told about the situation.

"I let 911 know that we needed at least three ambulances and Jaws of Life to get the passengers out of the car," William wrote.

When the EMT arrived, William stepped back and let the professionals work, while making sure they had what was needed.

"They were off duty. We didn't have any of the equipment we needed," William said.

Boy Scouts undergo training in first aid, search and rescue, and emergency preparedness. William, who has lived in Woodbury since 2000, earned his Eagle Scout in 1985 in Colorado and like other adult leaders has received additional training.

Boy Scouts learn "kind of how to react," Stepan said. "The way that we teach things is by practicing."

The trio had experience with "smaller situations," William said, like a rollover he witnessed in the past, a non-injury car crash with a deer, and bandaging cuts while camping.

"It might be awkward to see cuts or blood, but at least you have the basics," Stepan said.

"At the scene of an accident," William said, "people typically don't do anything. They stand around."

Ben dished out first-aid duties at the scene, where there were too many victims for just a few people to handle. Normally, he tends to get queasy at the sight of blood, he said.

"The adrenaline or something—I ignored it," Ben said. "Apparently what I said was enough to get grown adults to help out. I don't know what I said. They came over."

Ben and Liam tried to keep victims calm and engage bystanders to help.

"I could tell they were in shock," Ben said.

When it got hot, the boys handed out Gatorade.

The semi driver offered a roll of paper towels to apply as bandages.

"When he stopped, he was stopping his work," William said of the semi driver. "It was also his duty as a citizen to stop if you see it. So that was awesome."

A half-hour after the accident, the Iowa State Patrol came, followed by ambulances and a helicopter.

The Earleys had seen a Jaws of Life demonstration before, but to see them in an emergency response was "incredible," William said. "Ten seconds. Fast and efficient."

EMTs had the door off of the car and were putting the female victim in a neck brace and on a backboard.

"They had closed the highway off by then," Liam said.

The copter landed on the interstate for extraction of the victim.

Shortly after the copter took off, the Earleys said decided they needed to get to Omaha and let the first responders do their jobs, so they said goodbye and said a prayer in the car before they left.

"That was 40 minutes. It sure seemed like a lot longer," William said.

"That's what your body does—takes in more frames per second," Liam said. "That's when you're under stress."

Still they thought about it throughout their trip, and William humbly asked to tell their Troop 9071 about the lessons learned upon their return home.