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Monday, November 10, 2008

Good Story About a CA Tower

From the Hanford Sentinel:

Life gets harrowing on road for local tow truck driver

Standing inches from rushing traffic on Highway 99, Dave Klamm was focused on hooking a wrecked car to his tow truck. He wasn't watching the car hurtling toward him. But he felt it -- a whoosh that spun him around. When Klamm looked down, his shirt was torn where the car's side mirror had caught it, somehow missing flesh as it sliced through the fabric at 55 mph or more.

"Man, that was close. I tell you what, I don't want to go through that again," Klamm said.

Welcome to the life of Klamm, a 58-year-old Hanford resident who spends 12 hours a day doing a job that many think is among the most dangerous out there.

An estimated 50 to 60 tow truck drivers are killed every year on U.S. roadways, according to the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame, a Chattanooga, Tenn., organization that includes exhibits on the history of towing and a "Wall of the Fallen" recognizing tow truck drivers killed in the line of duty.

"We are first responders like the fire and police are. We just felt like we need (recognition) for our tow truck drivers too," said Georgia Hamilton, an employee at the facility.

There have been no Hanford city plaques recognizing Klamm, no ceremonies at Kings County Board of Supervisors meetings, no press releases hailing his courage.

Klamm works from a non-descript Ace's Towing office along a dilapidated stretch of East Lacey Boulevard marked by aging motels, auto part stores and empty lots.

The office amenities are a desk, a chair, a phone and a twin bed Klamm sleeps on when he works the graveyard shift.

The most attention Klamm gets is a result of the giant reflective stripes sewn to his uniform.

They are required by a recent law designed to keep vehicles from doing what one of them nearly did to Klamm that day on Highway 99, he said.

The danger is there, especially when the blanket of Tule fog descends of the Valley.

Klamm said he's arrived at many accident scenes on Highway 198, working to haul off smashed vehicles as traffic barrels through the fog a few inches away.

"I've always made a practice of getting that stuff hooked up and off the road before somebody comes along and hits us," Klamm said.

Klamm didn't always tow things for a living.

He hauled in most of his earnings as a crane operator and electrical technician, first in Fresno and later in the Bay Area.

In 1997, Klamm was making $25 to $30 an hour at a Union Oil Company of California facility in the Bay Area when he retired and moved to Hanford to care for his parents, Frankie and Konrad.

Klamm noticed that there wasn't much crane work available. So, since 2000, he's been towing, a skill he picked up at various companies in Fresno before he became a crane operator.

Klamm is resigned to the risks.

He had worse experiences as a taxi cab driver in west Fresno.

During a brief stint in the early 1970s, Klamm said his best friend, Ray, also a taxi driver, was shot and killed while on the job.

After that, Klamm got out of the taxi business for good.

But as a tow truck driver, he sees the same assortment of characters that taxi drivers deal with.

Klamm said he once arrived to find a vehicle with its rear tires burned to the ground.

Turns out the guy had been pouring gasoline in his master brake cylinder instead of brake fluid.

Klamm said the guy seemed genuinely surprised.

"He said, 'It used to work back in Georgia,'" Klamm said.

Klamm's stories of drunken clients play like a theater of the absurd.

He found one guy pouring gas into the radiator. Another was dumping gas into the engine.

Klamm's worst (or perhaps best) story described an incident where he attempted to take a drunk man and his vehicle home.

The man remembered the street he lived on, but couldn't recall the address.

So Klamm meandered along while the guy looked from house to house, trying to recall which one he lived in.

"We went up and down that damn street six times," Klamm said.

Klamm was about to dump the car and driver on the spot, but then "the guy suddenly looked up and said, 'Oh, there's my house right there.'"

"There are people like that," Klamm said.

Klamm said he likes helping people, but also finds them irritating.

What he thinks of the job doesn't much matter, however.

He needs it to "get by," as he put it.

Some employees in Kings County look forward to comfortable pensions and lengthy retirements.

Klamm looks forward to another day on a job that often puts him in the same kind of risk as so-called "first responders" -- fire, medical personnel and law enforcement.

"I would definitely rank it in the top five percent (of dangerous jobs)," said Jeff Hunter, executive director of the California Tow Truck Association.

Hunter said a California law went into effect this year that requires drivers to move into the lane away from a stopped tow truck with its lights flashing.

Hunter thinks motorists are more likely to slow down and respect law enforcement vehicles than tow trucks.

Klamm agreed.

He scoffed at the idea of retirement (He spent most of his Unocal pension money buying his Hanford house).

"Retirement is for people who don't want to work. I'll just keep towing until The Sentinel needs another bundle dropper, I guess," Klamm said with a laugh.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432

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