Sunday, August 26, 2001

UC coach is a lifesaver

Searles helped rescue pair from burning van

By Bill Koch
Enquirer contributor

        Almost 11 months later, Stacy Searels still gets chills just thinking about it. For a while, he had nightmares, too, but they have disappeared.

Stacy Searels joined the UC staff this season from Appalachian State.
(Steven M.Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The University of Cincinnati's new offensive line coach has seen a lot in his football life — the 1987 All- America tackle blocked for Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson at Auburn before spending three seasons in the NFL and one in the World League of American Football. But nothing has affected him like the events that occurred on a desolate stretch of highway in the mountains of western North Carolina just past midnight on Sunday, Oct.1, last year.

        On that night, Searels, in his seventh season as offensive line coach at Appalachian State, and two of his fellow assistant coaches — Rob Best and Shawn Elliot — saved two lives and had a chance to observe their players in an entirely different way.

        The Mountaineers had beaten East Tennessee State 30-13 just a few hours earlier and were feeling pretty good about themselves as they made the 1 1/2-hour drive from Johnson City, Tenn., back to their Boone, N.C., campus. There were three vehicles in the traveling party — a bus for the offense, a bus for the defense and a van carrying 13 others — trainers, videographers and managers.

        The players were happy but tired and eager to get home. Some of those on the offensive bus had been good-naturedly urging the driver to keep moving quickly along the winding roads.

        The van, driven by assistant trainer Tony Barnett, was ahead of the two buses. Moments after the van passed through a green light, the offensive bus reached the same light, just as it switched to yellow. Perhaps spurred on by the passengers' eagerness to get home, the driver hurried through the light. Within minutes, that decision would take on an importance no one could have imagined.

        Soon after they passed through the light, as they rounded a bend near the town of Foscoe, N.C., less than 10 miles from the Appalachian State campus, Searels and the others on his bus saw flames shooting some 20 feet into the night sky. They realized almost immediately they had happened upon a serious accident.

        Said Searels: “One of our kids said, "Hey, that's our van! Those are our people!'”

        Searels was the first one off the bus, followed quickly by Best and Elliot. The sight was grisly. The van had been hit almost head-on by a 1989 Audi station wagon that had crossed the center line. The driver of the Audi was killed instantly, his car consumed in flames.

        The van hadn't yet caught fire. Eleven of its 13 passengers had escaped safely, and 10 of them were sprawled nearby on an embankment with assorted cuts, bruises and broken bones. But two passengers — the driver Barnett and Jonathan Taylor, a student assistant coach who worked with the offensive linemen under Searels — were trapped inside.

        Searels and the other two coaches knew they had to get them out before the van burst into flames.

        “The flames are coming up in front, and one thing I remember is the music's playing real loud in the van,” Searels said. “I start to hear a crackling noise because the flames from the car are starting to come through the van a little bit. When I see Jonathan, his head is split open. He's dead, in my mind.”

        Searels grabbed Taylor by the arms and jerked him out of the van. After carrying him away from the wreckage, he returned to find Best and Elliot having trouble extricating Barnett. The driver's leg was broken and his pants were snagged on a piece of metal.

        Best reached in and ripped Barnett's pants free. But they were still struggling to move him.

        “This thing is about to go,” Searels said. “Tony's a big guy, bigger than me. We're trying to pull, and he won't come. Finally, I said, "Shawn, grab his belt.' We both grab his belt and his arms and just snatch him out of there.”

        They carried Barnett from the van and found that neither police nor emergency medical personnel had arrived. But the injured already were being treated. Without hesitating and with no prompting, the players had switched roles with the trainers, caring for the injured with blankets and bandages.

        By then, it was clear Taylor was alive. As he lay on the ground, an offensive lineman cradled Taylor's head in his hands in case his neck was broken.

        Within minutes after Barnett and Taylor were pulled out of the van, it burst into flames.

        It wasn't until later, after police and ambulances had arrived, that Searels remembered the bus driver hurrying through that yellow light.

        “If we had stopped at the light, two kids would have died,” he said.

        Almost miraculously, no one from Appalachian State died that night.

        Barnett suffered a dislocated ankle with a fractured fibula, a broken nose and broken eye socket.

        Taylor's injuries were more serious. He had hemorrhaging and swelling of his brain, a broken wrist that required surgery, and a broken fibula. He spent 20 days in the hospital.

        Taylor had been asleep for 15 to 20 minutes before the accident and was in a coma on life support for three days after it. Neither he nor Barnett, both of whom have returned to their jobs at Appalachian State, remember the details of what happened on that road.

        “Where we were coming into,” Barnett said, “the speed (limit) drops from 55 to 35. I remember telling the student trainer sitting beside me that it was time to slow down because the cops are on this road a lot. Then we went around the bend, and that's when we saw the headlights.”

        Both have since learned what Searels, Best and Elliot did that night. And they know that without them, they probably wouldn't be alive today.

        “You're kind of lost for words,” Barnett said. “The only thing you can do is say thanks.”

        Taylor, 30, already had been close to Searels from their work with the offensive linemen. Perhaps more than anyone, he was sorry to see his mentor leave for UC.

        “They're my heroes, no doubt about it,” Taylor said. “They jumped off that bus and saw that the other vehicle was already on fire. They didn't have any concern for their own safety.”

        Searels, 36, says he is not a hero, that anyone would have done what he, Best and Elliot did. “I hope human nature is good enough that when you see a guy about to die, you're going to help him,” Searels said.

        The NCAA was so impressed by the way Searels and his two colleagues responded, it presented them with its Award of Valor, which had been presented only eight previous times since its inception in 1974.

        The medal, inscribed with Searels' name, is in a wooden case and hangs on his basement wall. In a frame beside the award is a letter Taylor wrote to the NCAA, which was read during the award presentation ceremony in January.

        “I just wrote that what they did wasn't a big surprise,” Taylor said. “I worked with these guys all the time. You see what type of person they are. You know after spending time with them what they could do in certain situations. I thank them all the time. I can never thank them enough for what they did.”

        The letter, Searels says, means as much, if not more, than the award.“Was I scared? Did I think about the van blowing up? Yeah,” said Searels. “But did we have to get them out? Yeah. There wasn't any choice.”


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