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LA firefighters rely on ax, luck to free Woods from crash

February 27, 2021 GMT
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Fire engine probationary firefighter Cole Gomoll of Los Angeles County Fire Department - Station 106 poses for a photo with a flathead ax at his station Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif, a suburb of Los Angeles. He used the ax to cut away the windshield of a vehicle crashed by golfer Tiger Woods on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
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Fire engine probationary firefighter Cole Gomoll of Los Angeles County Fire Department - Station 106 poses for a photo with a flathead ax at his station Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif, a suburb of Los Angeles. He used the ax to cut away the windshield of a vehicle crashed by golfer Tiger Woods on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

ROLLING HILLS ESTATES, Calif. (AP) — With short, sure strokes of a flathead ax, firefighter Cole Gomoll methodically chopped along the edge of the SUV’s broken windshield as golf icon Tiger Woods — tangled up in his seatbelt and covered in a sheet to avoid shards of glass — waited in shock inside the mangled wreck.

When Gomoll had cut a long, continuous line to the end of the glass, he and another Los Angeles County firefighter peeled back the windshield. The 6-lb (2.7-kilogram), 36-inch-long (91-centimeter-long) ax went down, and the backboard was swapped in.

Within minutes, the ambulance had raced away, bound for the trauma center with its famous patient in the back.

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It would be hours before the news broke around the world but for Gomoll and the other nine members of Fire Station 106 in Rolling Hills Estates, California, Tuesday’s call — initially reported as a traffic collision with a person trapped — lasted just 12 minutes.

“He’s just another patient,” Gomoll told The Associated Press on Friday at Fire Station 106.

The 106’s firefighters, from Gomoll up to Battalion Chief Dean Douty, stressed that anyone in Woods’ dire situation would have received the same care from them.

“I didn’t know who was inside the car,” Capt. Joe Peña said, until a sheriff’s deputy told him.

And anyone else would get the same privacy, too — the firefighters declined to recount the athlete’s conversations and condition at the scene to preserve patient confidentiality.

“His identity really didn’t matter in what we do,” Capt. Jeane Barrett said.

Even so, those minutes marked a milestone in Gomoll’s career: It was the first time the 23-year-old Marine Corps veteran had performed an extrication like that in the field.

Gomoll joined the fire station, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the crash site, in August as a probationary firefighter. Just three weeks ago, he’d practiced similar moves with one of his superiors, Barrett.

“We’ve trained for stuff like this,” Gomoll said.

Woods was transferred from Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on Thursday to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for “continuing orthopedic care and recovery,” hospital officials said. A Friday night post on Woods’ Twitter account said he “received follow-up procedures on his injuries this morning. The procedures were successful, and he is now recovering and in good spirits.”

Woods had shattered the tibia and fibula bones of his lower right leg in multiple locations. Those injuries were stabilized with a rod in the tibia during a long surgery. Additional injuries to the bones in the foot and ankle required screws and pins.

Woods had been driving a 2021 Genesis SUV on a downhill stretch of road known for wrecks when he struck a raised median in a coastal Los Angeles suburb, crossed into oncoming lanes and flipped several times.

The crash was the latest setback for Woods, who has won 15 major championships and a record-tying 82 victories on the PGA Tour. He is among the world’s most recognizable sports figures, and at 45, even with a reduced schedule from nine previous surgeries, remains golf’s biggest draw.

He was in Los Angeles last weekend as the tournament host of the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. Monday and Tuesday had been set aside for him to give golf tips to celebrities on Discovery-owned GOLFTV.

The Los Angeles County sheriff has called the crash “purely an accident” and says drugs and alcohol did not appear to be a factor.

Everyone says Woods is lucky to be alive — and “if nothing else, it’s a good PSA for wearing a seatbelt,” Barrett added.

The first responders did, however, correct previous reports that said they’d used the Jaws of Life and a pry bar called a halligan tool to free the celebrity.

Barrett, a 25-year fire service veteran, and her fellow firefighters know the dangers of the eponymous rolling hills in the area and have cut many drivers out of their twisted cars.

They initially had three plans for Woods’ SUV: First, try the ax on the windshield. If that didn’t work, see if going through the sunroof was a possibility. A third option would be to cut the entire roof off.

The firefighters and paramedics spoke to Woods — who introduced himself as “Tiger” — throughout, reassuring him through a hole in the windshield that he’d soon be free.

“You can tell he was in pain,” firefighter Sally Ortega said, but he was still responding to their questions and clearly anxious to get out.

“Luckily, our first plan was the one that worked,” Barrett said.

As the ambulance pulled away, Barrett surveyed the SUV to see what lessons her crew might be able to apply to save a future driver.

“No car is ever crumpled in the same way,” she said.

The firefighters later debriefed together around their station’s kitchen table, then ate salads for lunch in a nearby park — savoring the last of the quiet as the news finally made its way around the world.