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Monday, May 3, 2010

TX Towers Rally, Mourn For One Of Own

Here's the Abilene Reporter News story on the memorial service for TX tower Adam Lopez, who was killed on April 20:

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Saturday morning the first tow truck, a big 18-wheeler, pulled in to the yard at Freddy’s Garage just off Interstate 20 in Ranger.

A few minutes later, another truck, a “roll-back” pulled in. A few minutes later came another. Then another.

They came from Sweetwater, from Cisco, from Weatherford. Two came all the way from San Antonio.

By 9 a.m., the yard was nearly full with tow trucks of all shapes and sizes from across the state.

The drivers gathered in clusters, talking in hushed tones, eyes cast down at boots tracing awkward tracks in the gravel. Hats removed, hands shaken, people moved from group to group, conversing.

They had gathered to mourn the loss of one of their own, killed while performing his duty a few days earlier.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, Adam Lopez Jr. was helping clear a truck wreck from the center median on I-20 east of Ranger. Members of the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of Public Safety were on hand to guide traffic around the working crews.

According to the DPS news release, about 12:20 a.m., a motorist heading east left the road, entered the median and hit the wrecked truck just before hitting Lopez. He was taken immediately to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, where he was pronounced dead at 5:01 a.m.

The Department of Public Safety’s investigation into the accident is still ongoing.

dangerous job

For tow truck operators, danger exists with every call out, whether clearing a wrecked 18-wheeler or changing a tire on a family minivan. Operators who gathered at Freddy’s Garage before the funeral on Saturday could recount several close calls.

“My wife would sell my truck if I told her about every close call I’ve had,” said M.D. Lee of Cisco. After 40 years of operating a tow truck, he says he cannot recall how many near-misses he’s endured.

“You don’t want to dwell on them, and you don’t want to count them,” he said. “You just have to put it out of your mind to be able to keep going.”

Jose Rosado, of Sweetwater, recalled a recent brush with death.

“Last winter, out in Scurry County, a big rig had jackknifed in the median,” he said. “I was out there with another wrecker, when another 18-wheeler came along and hit a car I was loading up on my truck. I happened to be looking up and saw it coming — and managed to jump out of the way.”

An on-duty tow truck operator driver is killed, on average, every six days — more than 60 each year — according to Jess Horton of the Southwest Towing Association,.

Under current legislation, tow trucks are not afforded any protection under the “Move Over” laws that require motorists to slow down and change lanes when emergency vehicles are working on the roadways.

Horton said Texas is one of the few remaining states that have not extended this protection to tow truck operators.

Many operators would like to see laws passed enabling tow trucks to be fitted with red-and-blue emergency lights like police cars. However, one police officer who wished not to be identified said the chances of this happening are slim.

“That’s a big part of the problem,” said Harris Gingles, who works out of Freddy’s Garage. “People see the amber lights and think, ‘Hey, it’s not a cop, so I don’t have to slow down or move over.’”

Most tow truck operators work alone, which means they are often doing multiple things at once.

Daniel Garcia, of Comanche, said it takes anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours to complete a job.

“Even with your most basic disabled vehicle, you’re out there trying to keep the driver and their family safe,” he said. “You’re trying to get the vehicle loaded up on to the truck, and you’re keeping an eye down the road looking for what’s coming. All the while, you’ve got cars and trucks speeding by, just a few feet away from where you’re working.”

final farewell

More than 300 people filed into the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church in Ranger on Saturday morning: friends and family, firefighters and tow truck drivers. The pews and aisles were filled to capacity with those saying a final farewell to Lopez, a local boy who loved his town.

Friends say he was involved in too many activities to list. He had served on the city council. He was on the board of directors of the Ranger Historical Society. He had spent the past 15 years working as a volunteer firefighter with the Ranger Fire Department.

While hymns were sung and Scriptures read inside, on the street outside the church, diesel engines could be heard firing up. With the Ranger Fire Department coordinating, more than 35 tow trucks and fire trucks created an honor guard along Main Street, lining the route from the church to the cemetery. As the hearse slowly rolled past the assembled trucks, fire fighters snapped to attention and tow truck operators bowed their heads.

“Adam never met a stranger,” said Jason Wiesen, longtime friend and owner of Freddy’s Garage. “You’d send him out on a job, and he’d come back with five new friends.”

“We’re a tight-knit group,” he added. “The towing industry is a lot like a family. There aren’t as many of us as you’d think, and we tend to help one another out.”

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