UNION TWP. — It was an ordinary Wednesday.
Northwest Area School District students Sam Troy, Joe May and Ashton Strish were together in a school van, riding back to campus from morning classes at the Wilkes-Barre Area Career and Technical Center on April 11. That’s where Sam and Ashton are learning diesel repair and Joe is learning welding.
Everything seemed normal as the van cruised down Route 11. And then it wasn’t: The teens were plunged into immediate danger as their driver started having a medical emergency at the wheel.
“She started yelling ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ and her face started turning red and purple,” Joe, 16, recalled during an interview at district offices on Friday.
“All of a sudden, she puts her hands on her chest, and she’s like ‘I can’t breathe,’ and she passes out,” Sam, 15, added.
What the students did next may have saved at least four lives, and turned three unassuming young men into local heroes, before even one of them has a full driver’s license.
The van was moving at least 45 to 50 mph, Sam estimated.
“Highway speeds,” Ashton, 16, added.
The youths faced two urgent problems: Saving the ailing driver, and saving the van from a crash that could have killed them all, as well as other motorists on the busy highway.
Of the teenagers, Ashton and Joe have their learner’s permits, but Sam doesn’t yet. Each has some familiarity with cars and trucks — fixing them, even — but none of the boys had ever encountered a driving emergency like this.
Or a health emergency like this.
“I was thinking, ‘What are we gonna do?’ I don’t know anything about medical issues,” Sam said.
Were they scared?
“Yeah, yeah,” the three answered quietly in unison.
“We were more concerned about how she was going to be,” Sam added.
Joe was sitting next to the driver, whose name has not been released out of respect for her medical privacy. Sam was sitting behind Joe, and Ashton was sitting behind the driver.
Within seconds, Joe reached over and grabbed the steering wheel. Sam was able to come forward and lift the driver’s foot off the gas pedal.
“I was on the passenger side. That’s how I was able to pull the van over and put it in park,” Joe said.
“Joe here pulled the wheel and pulled it to the side of the road,” Sam said, gesturing toward his friend.
One crisis was averted, but the driver’s fate still hung in the balance.
Joe got out and called 911. Meanwhile, Ashton also jumped out and opened the doors, and helped Sam pull the driver from her seat and lay her on the ground.
“We had pulled off by a house. This guy — I don’t know his name — I guess he was medically certified, he knew CPR,” Sam said.
“The guy who lived there came running down and just told us get her out of the van and onto solid ground,” Ashton said. “He was about to give her CPR, but right as he was doing it she started to breathe again.”
“I guess she was breathing again, but it was very faintly,” Sam added. “She couldn’t talk or anything.”
Emergency crews arrived soon afterward. The teens said they have not seen the driver since the incident, but she is understood to be recovering.
In this tight-knit rural area of Luzerne County, known for its Susquehanna River vistas between the picturesque “Five Mountains,” the driver was no stranger to them.
Not only is she their regular van operator between Northwest Area and the Wilkes-Barre tech center, Sam said his dad knows her, while Ashton’s mom went to school with her.
“She was in shock. She didn’t know what to say,” Ashton said of his mother’s reaction to the incident.
School officials knew what to say.
“We always know that our students are great kids,” said Bette Ellis, director of district operations. “Nothing like this surprises us, it just makes us more proud of the students we have here, appreciative of the kind of kids we have in our district.”
Ellis paused, her voice cracking slightly.
“Good boys,” she said, looking over at Sam, Joe and Ashton. “Very, very humble.”
‘Help make a difference’
On Wednesday, Joe and Sam attended a school board meeting at which they were commended for their actions. They were presented with a plaque, as well as gifts from an anonymous donor: A tool kit, and gift cards to Tractor Supply Co. Ashton, who was not able to attend, received his at school on Friday.
Their actions also received a standing ovation at the meeting.
Even after their harrowing experience on the highway, Sam admitted that appearing before the board did make him “just a little nervous.”
After the Times Leader finished an interview with the boys, Ellis and Principal Ryan Miner on Friday, Miner quietly came out to the parking lot to share a few final thoughts.
The students initially didn’t talk about what they had done, he explained. Only through others did he finally learn the whole story.
“Through the whole thing, they’ve just been so humble,” Miner said. “At the end of the day, if you’re helping to foster kids who put others first and help make a difference in the world for the greater good, then you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Do the boys see themselves as heroes?
“I just think we did what we thought we had to do,” Sam said.
“Yeah,” Joe and Ashton replied.
Times Leader correspondent Tom Huntington contributed to this report.