German recognized for heroism at autobahn crash
August 22, 2013
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany - A broad smile lit up Liridon Lukaj's face as Spc. Heather Colton walked up to him at Pulaski Park with her son, Riley.
Fifteen months earlier, Lukaj, a soldier in the Germany army, rescued them from a severe car wreck - a frightening memory that evaporated as Riley ran off to play with Lukaj's own daughters. For Lukaj and Colton, the reunion on a sunny day in the park helped both find closure on a traumatic experience.
It was chilly and still dark the morning of April 23, 2012, as Colton drove her 1989 Audi onto the autobahn for her early morning commute to Miesau -- where Riley goes to daycare while she works in the installation coordinator's office. Colton, an Army shower and laundry specialist who served a 15-month tour in Iraq, had just returned from her home in Alaska.
"That morning, I got in my car, got my son all strapped in and headed onto the A-6," Colton said. "My check engine light came on. I was in the center lane and I lost all power."
She coasted to the side, but there was no breakdown lane. She telephoned for help. She remembers hearing a military police officer say to stay in her car. She never saw the oncoming truck.
Lukaj's morning also began routine. He picked up a fellow soldier, Talat Abdullah, stopping for gas and a coffee before driving his BMW onto the autobahn. Abdullah dozed beside him. In his rearview mirror, Lukaj watched a fast-moving truck swerve, so he let it pass. Then, he saw a stalled Audi up ahead. One truck smashed into the car and then another.
"Oh my God, what's happened?" Lukaj cried, turning to Abdullah. "There's an accident. We must help."
He slammed on his brakes, leapt out and waved down speeding autobahn traffic. Rushing adrenaline replaced his fear as early morning commuters screeched to a halt. Lukaj, a Kosovo native who moved to Kaiserslautern as a child, prayed for strength as he ran to the crushed hulk of the car.
Inside, he saw a young woman in a gray American uniform. The air was thick with the smell of leaking gasoline. Fearing an explosion, Lukaj yanked at the crumpled door, tugging and thrashing. At one point, his hand got caught in the metal wreckage. Tugging it out, his hand throbbed in pain, but he kept pulling.
Colton was in shock. She came to when Lukaj pinched her ear lobes. Lukaj and Abdullah lifted her away from the accident.
"I realized, I was being pulled out by two Germans and I asked where my kid was," Colton said. "They were like, 'We don't see a child.'"
Lukaj closely examined the wreck. Then, he saw a baby boy. He saw blood. He thought the worst. Tears filled his eyes. Lukaj, a father of three, prayed the child was all right. Calling to Abdullah for help, they freed Riley from the backseat.
Soon, German medics arrived and brought Colton and her son to a local hospital, where they were treated for minor injuries.
I'm very grateful that I was pulled out of the car and that me and my son walked out with only scratches and bruises," Colton said. "Everyone who's seen the pictures said, 'You shouldn't have walked out of there alive.'"
Colton got a loan through Army Emergency Relief and bought a 2001 Honda Accent. It took her a while to drive on the autobahn again. She found herself avoiding trucks for some time. Riley had trouble sleeping. For Colton, 25, life has mostly returned to normal, she said.
Lukaj, however, cannot forget that morning. His injured hand prevents him from continuing to serve in the German army, and he's awakened by nightmares from the accident, he said.
Recognition for his efforts cheered him up him, though. In July, the German state of Rhineland Pfalz awarded Lukaj and Abdullah with the state's rescue medal, presented to those first responders whose efforts saved a life. U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern recognized Lukaj during an Aug. 15 event at Pulaski Barracks. Col. Bryan DeCoster, commander of U.S. Army Baden-Württemberg, thanked Lukaj at a brief ceremony. Then, Lukaj, his wife, Tina, and their daughters, Erza, Leona and Alea, joined garrison staff for a barbecue. Col. Myron McDaniels and Command Sgt. Maj. Dwight Wafford, the 212th CSH command team, and Master Sgt. Edgar Matthews, Colton's supervisor, also attended.
Before leaving the barbecue, Colton thanked Lukaj and gave him a hug.
"I'm happy that my son and I are alive," Colton said. "I'm just very grateful."