In the early morning hours of July 13, 18-year-old Gavin Claybourn lay impaled in his gold Mercury Cougar, a 32-foot pole extending from the front windshield, through his chest, out the back seat and 18 feet beyond the rear bumper.

When first responders arrived in the 18000 block of Redland Road, Claybourn was bleeding but breathing, the hollow, 2.5-inch thick pole lodged within an inch from his heart.

In less than 30 minutes, fire engineers pried open the driver’s side door, sawed off the front and back ends of the pole, removed Claybourn from the vehicle and transported him to a waiting chopper, Airlife.

A recent graduate of Johnson High School, Claybourn arrived at University Hospital in critical condition, a piece of the pole stuck in his chest. More than a week later, he remains in the hospital in fair condition.

Friends have posted news of the accident on Twitter and requested prayers. Claybourn and his family declined to comment to the Rivard Report but he tweeted a reply to one well-wisher:

The miraculous rescue required the coordinated efforts of more than a dozen first responders from seven emergency vehicles. “You could go a whole career — even 10 careers — and never see something work out the way this did,” said engineer James Allerkamp, a seven-year veteran of the San Antonio Fire Department. “It’s mind-boggling.”

SAFD Engineer James Allerkamp pulls out the Jaws of Life from a SAFD engine. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAFD Engineer James Allerkamp pulls out the “jaws of life” from a SAFD engine. Photo by Scott Ball.

Police say Claybourn was driving east on Redland Road around 2:30 a.m. when his vehicle veered off the road, struck a telephone pole and smashed into a chain link fence. The impact drove a long galvanized pole from the fence through the windshield like a spear.

Paramedic Trey Votion arrived In the dead of night, lights flashing from a nearby fire engine, and radioed for AirLife. He climbed into the passenger seat, checked for bleeding – a colleague had stopped it – started an IV and administered pain medicine. He spoke with Claybourn and called for more help.

“The guy had the top wing of a cyclone fence through his car,” said Votion, a 17-year veteran with SAFD. “The pipe was still connected to the fence. This is all one piece that went through him and extended out past the car. I’m guessing 20-25 feet of pipe traveled through him.”

Pinned to his seat, Claybourn was in shock, unable to move. Votion and another first responder, Robin Scribner, kept him calm until Allerkamp arrived with tools. “The driver’s side door was wedged closed,” Allerkamp said. “So we used the jaws of life to force it open.”

The next step required a portable generator and an electric metal cutter called a “sawzall.” Once the pain medicine took effect, Allerkamp began sawing. As paramedics held either side of the pole, Allerkamp cut off the front and back ends in less than a minute, leaving a small piece in Claybourn’s chest.

“We probably had six people around the vehicle as we were cutting him out,” Allerkamp said.

SAFD Paramedic Trey Votion holds the 'SAWZALL' tool used to cut the galvanized pipe. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAFD Paramedic Trey Votion holds the “Sawzall” tool used to cut the galvanized pipe. Photo by Scott Ball.

The crew removed Claybourn from the car and placed him at an angle on a stretcher, the remaining piece protruding a bit from his body. After transporting Claybourn to a chopper, an AirLife nurse made a startling discovery. Through the hollow piece, she could see completely through the victim.

Police have not determined a cause for the accident. But an SAPD report cites three possible contributing factors: failure to control speed, driver inattention or driving under the influence. The cause is unimportant to first responders.

“When you make these type of runs,” Allerkamp explained, “how it happens doesn’t matter. We’re just focused on getting the individual out.”

In nearly 20 years with SAFD, Votion has never responded to such a scene. “We see trauma all the time,” he said. “But that was a once in a lifetime type of call.”

Allerkamp deflected praise. He named each of the firefighters and paramedics who helped with the rescue. And he insisted, “I’m confident any other (SAFD) crew would have had success.”

Success did not come easily. No first responder at Redland Road had ever been tasked with saving a driver impaled with a pole that could reach the window of a three-story building. So thick was the darkness inside the car, handlights were needed to see the victim. And yet, as 3 a.m. approached, medicine was flowing, an electric saw was buzzing, and hope was beginning to rise.

And rise it did. Soon, a chopper lifted off with a young survivor. On the ground, the emergency crew packed and drove back into the night, waiting for the next call.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 23, 2016. 

Top image: SAFD Engineer and Paramedic Trey Votion (left) and SAFD Engineer James Allerkamp at San Antonio Fire Department Station 1, holding tools used to save the life of Gavin Claybourn.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.