VDOT worker recalls brush with death

Published 1:16 pm Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wednesday, Jan. 31 started off as a normal day for Jimmie Harris, a Virginia Department of Transportation worker from Sussex County. He and coworkers Hank Cooke and Brian Carr had been assigned to repair potholes on U.S. Route 58 near Drewryville.

The crew had repaired five or six potholes so far that day, gradually working their way up the highway. But just as Harris was about to exit his truck at the section of highway near Arringdale Road, he heard Cooke shout, “Watch out!”

That was the only warning, Harris recalled. The next things he saw were spilled diesel fuel and debris scattered all over the highway, and Cooke, trapped in his now-overturned truck with the shoulder strap of his seatbelt around his neck.

“I didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Harris said. “I was shaking so bad I could hardly call 911, but that’s what I did.”

What had happened was a tractor-trailer had struck Cooke’s vehicle from behind. According to VDOT and Virginia State Police officials, the driver of the tractor trailer had been attempting to merge back into the right-hand lane where Harris and Cooke were working after having passed the first of the three VDOT trucks assigned to the pothole repair job. The first VDOT truck had been equipped with an orange sign stating “road work ahead, right lane closed” and a cushion extender and arrow board advising traffic to move left.

Although the cushion extender absorbed the brunt of the impact, as it was designed to do, the crash still caused Cooke’s truck to collide with Harris’ and then turn on its side.

Harris said that without Cooke’s warning, in the next 90 seconds, he would have been standing directly in the path of Cooke’s truck.

“I just went last week to see my granddaughter in Florida, I would never have made it” Harris said. “All because of one person failing to obey the flashing lights.”

Harris spoke about his brush with death at Old Dominion University on Monday morning as part of VDOT’s participation in Highway Safety Month. As part of this campaign, titled “See the Cone, Respect the Zone,” Cooke’s vehicle and its crushed cushion extender will be on display in the Kaufman Mall at ODU through April 13. 

Nina Napolitano, a senior communication specialist with VDOT and co-chair of VDOT’s National Work Zone Awareness Committee, said that the purpose of having the wrecked vehicle on ODU’s campus was to raise awareness about the importance of work zone safety, especially with young drivers.

According to a National Work Zone Awareness fact sheet distributed by VDOT, last year there were 2,666 work zone crashes in Virginia, resulting in 1,329 injuries and 12 fatalities.

Harris attributes his and Carr’s survival, and that of Cooke, who is in physical therapy, to the grace of God. Cooke sustained a rotator cuff injury as well as injuries to his back and neck as a result of the collision.

“He can only raise his arm so high,” Harris said. “I don’t think we were lucky, and we don’t know if it will happen again.

“We’re always in harm’s way, every single day. I try to be as safe as I can be, but I can only be as safe as they [other drivers] allow me to be.”