GALLAGHER: Wrestling official escapes burning truck on I-29

December 13, 2018 GMT

SIOUX CITY -- Wrestling official Bob Baxter can award himself more than one point for the great escape he executed in breaking out of his burning truck on Interstate 29 north of Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Saturday morning.

You might say Baxter gave himself a second chance, and then some.

“Thank goodness I’m in shape,” said Baxter, a 1972 Bishop Heelan High School graduate who has conditioned himself by officiating prep wrestling for 46 years. “It all sank in when I was riding home on Saturday, just how serious it was.”

A look at the photo or video shows Baxter escaped serious injury, if not death, in bursting from the driver’s seat of his Chevy Silverado as it burned after losing a wheel and skidding to a stop. Baxter’s quick thinking led him to grab a flashlight, which he used to break the driver’s window before throwing himself from the cab back-first onto I-29. As he landed, flames burst and threw him a few feet from the wreckage.

“As I rolled slightly, that’s when the truck blew,” he remembered. “I didn’t get burned, but the force helped push me away from the truck.”

As amazing as this sounds, Baxter’s commitment to the sport he loves -- and the close-knit community that surrounds it -- became evident then and three hours later as he reported to work a day’s worth of matches at the Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic, an early-season bonanza featuring 40 teams and 10 mats of action at the MidAmerica Center.

Baxter lost all his gear, his wallet, phone and more in the blaze. Rather than scurrying around Council Bluffs that morning in search of pants, shoes, whistle, shirt and arm bands, he was able to piece together an ensemble donated by fellow officials.

Before going further, we’ll back up to the way Baxter’s day began. He left home in Sioux City before 6 a.m. and headed south in his trusty truck, aiming to make weigh-ins by 8 a.m. He was 10 miles north of Council Bluffs when he heard a thud.

“All of a sudden, the front driver’s side dropped and the vehicle went out of control,” he said. “I almost went into the center ditch, but I kept it upright and managed to get it (across lanes) to the right side of the road.”

Baxter smelled something burning, which he presumed was rubber from a tire blowout. He exited the truck, examined the wheel and noticed the wheel had broken off entirely and was wedged beneath the vehicle. “That’s why it didn’t go all the way down,” he said. “The tire and hub were on their side and dragging.”

Baxter had a hard time opening the door, but he managed to get it and then hopped back into the truck. Within seconds, flames and smoke poured from the hood as the cab filled with smoke. He tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. The window wouldn’t roll down, either.

“I couldn’t break the window with my elbow,” he said. “And that’s when I remembered that I had a little flashlight in the console next to me. I grabbed it and banged on the window until it broke. I cleared out the glass and began crawling out until I fell backwards onto the concrete.”

As he rolled, the truck erupted into a ball of fire.

A passerby witnessed the inferno and stopped his truck not far ahead of Baxter. The man called 911 immediately and asked Baxter if he was OK. “I stood there wondering what had just happened,” Baxter said.

The two men waited for the Iowa State Patrol and the Pottawattamie County Sheriff. And, they visited about wrestling. “The guy who called 911 told me he was headed to Council Bluffs for the wrestling tournament as his son was wrestling. He told me he’d stay there with me as long as needed and then he’d take me to the meet,” Baxter said.

Six fire fighters from two agencies reported to the scene to douse the flames. Three fire fighters had children wrestling at the tournament in Council Bluffs. A fourth was a former West Lyon High School prep who recognized Baxter, saying Baxter used to officiate matches in which he participated.

After officers completed their report, Baxter joined the passerby (he can’t recall the man’s name) and headed to Council Bluffs. He arrived at 10 a.m. and soon had enough borrowed gear to begin his slate of matches for the day. During a break, Baxter borrowed a phone and called his wife, Maureen Baxter, to tell her about the incident and to ask her to drive to Council Bluffs to pick him up at the end of the day.

Clint Koedam, the SB-L coach, heard this and immediately offered Baxter a seat in the Warriors’ suburban for the ride home; there was no need for Maureen to drive all the way there to pick him up.

The gravity of the fire struck Baxter on that ride home. Looking at the video and the photo shot by the man who had pulled over, he began to realize what he escaped.

Beyond that, the ordeal illustrated strong bonds forged in the sport he has served for more than a half-century, if you count his time as a competitor at Heelan and Morningside College. The passerby had a wrestling connection, as did fire fighters; fellow officials helped him suit up, while a coach offered a lift home. Baxter didn’t have to ask for any of it.

Bob Baxter reports to work tonight at a meet at Lawton-Bronson High School. He’ll work the Austin Roberts Memorial Invitational at Spencer High School in Spencer, Iowa, on Saturday. He’ll be there in February for his induction into the Iowa High School Athletic Association Officials’ Hall of Fame, an honor he richly deserves.

He reflected a bit about the honor this week while detailing his great escape, laughing about the one point he earned. The developments, he said, demonstrate how blessed he’s been to work in a sport -- and a sporting community -- he adores.

“What happened to me along the way that day, it shows how many of us are really proud of wrestling, proud to say we wrestled in high school and college,” he said. “The wrestling family is so tight.”