South Dakota man to receive Carnegie Medal for saving life
HAYTI, S.D. — Honoring a hero never goes out of style.
Chris Schafer of Hayti is again being rewarded for his life-saving efforts from 20 months ago when he pulled a 16-year-old semitrailer driver from the burning wreckage of his vehicle.
Schafer, 43, the Hamlin County director of equalization, is one of 19 Americans to receive the prestigious Carnegie Hero Medal, which is awarded yearly by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission to individuals who risked their lives to save others. Along with the medal Schafer will receive a $5,000 grant.
The medal was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, the famous industrialist, business magnate and philanthropist of the early 1900s. Carnegie wrote the terms and initially funded the Hero Commission to honor the memories of two men who entered a 1904 coal mine following an explosion. They were both killed, along with 179 other victims.
The Hero Fund has since awarded 10,081 medals and $40.8 million in accompanying grants.
On Aug. 17, 2017, Schafer, Deputy Director Gaylene Rothenberger and Treasurer Jessica Trautner were traveling east on U.S. Highway 14 after undergoing software training in Pierre. As they descending a hill immediately west of Blunt, they came upon an accident.
Cory Brink of Pierre was driving a 2000 Kenworth semitrailer and pulling tandem 800-bushel trailers loaded with grain. His truck slammed into the second of two locomotives, narrowly missing a car loaded with 8,000 gallons of oil.
The collision knocked the front axle of the locomotive off the rails and turned Brink’s cab into a tangled mess of steel. Grain from the trailers spilled onto the roads and partially buried Brink in his cab.
“What we figured is that we were less than a minute behind,” Schafer said about the crash. “There was still dust in the air when we came up to the site.”
Schafer didn’t realize Brink was trapped inside the cab until he ran up to it. Fires were already burning in the engine compartment and behind the cab. Two engineers from the train and a volunteer firefighter from Blunt arrived moments after Schafer.
Brink was critically injured but conscious. Fortunately for him, Schafer is a volunteer firefighter and an emergency medical technician.
“I’ve seen a lot of these, but this one even surprised the heck out of me that anyone could live through it,” Schafer said.
When fire extinguishers couldn’t control the flames, Schafer and the firefighter — who has preferred to remain anonymous — went to work opening the driver-side door to remove Brink.
“We had to push it forward to kind of peel it open,” Schafer said. “It’s amazing the thing even unlatched. Looking at the wreckage, you wouldn’t think you could get anything unlatched.”
The two men scooped away some of the grain and pulled Brink to safety. Schafer estimates it took less than two minutes before the cab was completely engulfed by the fire.
In a Pierre newspaper article four days later, Schafer said perfect timing allowed Brink to survive. “If we had (arrived) a minute ahead or a minute behind, that window of opportunity would have been gone.”
Brink was moved away from the site and within minutes an ambulance was taking him to a Pierre hospital. He was eventually moved to a Sioux Falls hospital and spent two months recovering.
Brink has since thanked Schafer for his actions that day, and Schafer said he has spoken to Brink and his family several times. Schafer has never learned, however, the names of the two engineers or the firefighter.
“All I was focused on was getting this kid out of this truck,” he said. “I don’t know who helped. I remember the part before and I remember the part after, but in between, honestly, my mind just shut it out.”
Schafer’s first honor came in May of 2018 when the South Dakota Police Chiefs and South Dakota Sheriffs Associations jointly selected awarded him the Citizen’s Award of Merit.
Earlier this year a Carnegie Hero Fund representative investigating the accident contacted Schafer and others.
In March, Schafer was told he would be a recipient. He thinks the person who helped him remove Brink should also be included in the award.
“That’s the only question we still have is who was the one who helped me get him out of the truck,” he said. “I was just really fortunate to be at the right place at the right time when he (Brink) absolutely needed it the most.”