“ A lot of people make sports stars out to be some kind of heroes. But if you ask me, people who don’t seek the limelight and risk their personal safety – perhaps even their lives – to save people they don’t know … that separates them as the real heroes.” –Officer Lou Gregoire, Gwinnett County Police Department, outside Atlanta, Georgia
Today, Officer Lou Gregoire is a police helicopter pilot in Gwinnett County – a job in an elite aviation unit that allows him to quickly come to the rescue of fellow officers in any number of bad situations. He’s probably been instrumental in saving more than a few lives and removing a slew of criminals from the streets over the years.
Yet he would never have gotten the chance to do any of that if a truck driver named David Zorn hadn’t stepped in to save Gregoire’s life eight years ago during a traffic stop gone horribly, brutally wrong.
Back in 2000, Zorn – driving an 18-wheeler for the now-defunct Consolidated Freightways on U.S. Interstate 85 in Norcross, Ga., on the outskirts of Atlanta – spotted Gregoire under attack by a man stopped for suspicion of driving while intoxicated
Unbeknownst to Zorn, the man beating on Gregoire was a physical trainer at the local YMCA. The fight had gotten so bad that Gregoire tried resorting to deadly force – yet his Smith and Wesson semi-automatic pistol locked up because the clip ejected during the struggle. Even worse, police backup for Gregoire wasn’t immediately available because all the other officers had been tied up with two shootings and three bar brawls in the area. Dozens of motorists had slowed down to look at the scene as the beleaguered officer fought for his life, but they quickly drove on – leaving Gregoire to whatever fate awaited him.
“The whole time I was fighting him, he kept telling me, ‘I’m not going to jail…you’re making me kill you…since you’re not letting me go, I’m going to have to kill you,’” Gregoire said recently in recalling the incident. He found out later that the same man had assaulted an officer and escaped during a similar DUI stop nearly a year earlier.
Gregoire’s attacker had him pinned on the ground when Zorn arrived – and when Gregoire’s assailant got a look at the 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound truck driver coming at him brandishing a large flashlight, he fled. But like a blitzing linebacker, Zorn pursued and caught up to the man – pinning him firmly to the ground until additional police officers finally reached the scene. Gregoire’s assailant eventually received a 10-year prison term for the incident.
Zorn, who is now working as a regional driver for Yellow Transportation, still has a hard time seeing himself as a hero. Rather, he looks at himself as someone who was angry that no one else would stop to help a police officer in trouble. “I guess it was the way I was raised – you help people when they’re in trouble,” he recently said.
For his heroism, Zorn won the Goodyear North America Highway Hero Award in 2000. More importantly, though, is how that recognition changed his life in trucking – especially among his peers.
“Before this incident, I had been driving trucks for 12 years feeling somewhat disconnected from society. You know, it’s just the nature of the job since trucking is so demanding. So I was amazed at how many people knew who I was after I won the Highway Hero award,” he said.
“When I worked for Consolidated, I was routinely driving from Atlanta to the Pacific Northwest. I would be in Seattle or in Portland walking across the yard and co-workers who I didn’t know would smile at me and talk to me just like they knew me,” Zorn recalled. “Then, when I came over to Yellow Transportation a few years later, the same thing was happening.”
Look, I know I’ve referenced Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s award in this space more than once. [Nominations for the 2008 award, by the way, are still being accepted through Nov. 30. You can call the Goodyear Hero Hotline at 330-796-8183 or go to www.highwayhero.net and submit your candidate online.]
But this is important – going well beyond the Goodyear marketing that obviously surrounds an award like this. It’s about properly recognizing those truck drivers – the folks doing the real work in this industry – that really go above and beyond the call of duty; who step into the breach time and countless time again when many others that also share the highways do not.
Zorn, for one, sees the program as an encouragement to truck drivers to take more responsibility for helping others. “When this situation came up, it was an opportunity for me to do something for the neighborhood – and my neighborhood is the highway,” he explained.
These selfless acts by drivers – and there are so many, yet few are recognized for them – really go a long way towards changing the stereotypes they suffer under. Just ask Officer Gregoire. “After what David did for me and after meeting the other highway hero nominees at the [Mid America] trucking show [in 2001], I started seeing truck drivers more as professionals who are proud of what they do and how they really do care about their reputations and the safety of others,” he said.
No truer words can be spoken, I think.