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After Devastating Car Wreck Right Before His Eyes, An Officer Reacts

Stuart Tomlinson

The Oregonian   October 13, 2004

The pickup blew by, pushing 80.

Jason McGowan, a Portland police reserve officer whose patrol car was stopped at Southeast Division and Southeast 142nd Avenue, saw it swerving in and out of traffic. Then it nearly hit him.

McGowan, like all Portland reserve officers, isn’t supposed to get involved in car chases. But maybe, he remembers thinking, he could catch the driver at the light.

But before McGowan could turn on his emergency lights, the pickup swerved into oncoming traffic and smashed into a Dodge at the corner of Southeast Division and 148th. It was just before 8 o’clock Monday evening.

“I thought it was a fatal,” McGowan recalled later. “The person at the receiving end of that couldn’t possibly survive.”

*   *   *

Karen Webb, a Providence Health Systems customer-service rep, was lined up in the drive-through at a Carl’s Jr. She watched in horror as a pickup smashed into a Dodge headed for the 7-Eleven across the street. The car and pickup rocketed across the road, smashing through signs and roadside shrubs.

“The guy never hit the brakes,” Webb said later.

The pickup’s driver, 25-year-old Tyson Fortner of Gresham, who has multiple convictions for driving and drug violations, jumped out of the pickup and limped away.

McGowan ran after him, but Fortner, slowed by injuries suffered in the crash, sank to the ground. McGowan stood over him. He turned to two men who’d arrived at the scene and asked them to watch Fortner. “Don’t worry,” he remembered them saying, “he’s not going anywhere … He ran into our cars at 122nd and we’ve been chasing him.”

McGowan turned to the smoking wreck. The driver, 19-year-old Evan Leigh Waggoner of Southeast Portland, looked as though she was pinned in her seat, unconscious and motionless.

Then flames shot out from under the hood.

McGowan, 31, knows a little about battling fires. He’s a Gresham Fire Department captain who was honored three years ago when he and a fellow firefighter rescued a 3-year-old girl from the basement of a burning house.

McGowan grabbed a fire extinguisher from the trunk of his patrol car and raced to the burning Dodge. He emptied it into the flames. The fire retreated and flared up again.

*   *   *

The force of the crash had knocked Waggoner and the entire front seat into the back of the passenger compartment. The twisted and bent wreckage surrounded her, pinning her inside.

Two more patrol cars pulled up. Officers Rich Steinbronn and John Shadron grabbed their fire extinguishers, raced to the Dodge and emptied them. The fire retreated, and then grew again. Somebody ran into the 7-Eleven, grabbed another extinguisher and aimed it into the car. Still, the fire burned.

Then Waggoner moved. This is outstanding, McGowan thought. She’s alive.

Did she hear the sirens? he asked. The firefighters were coming to free her.

*   *   *

From his perch on Engine 45, Lt. Joe Renhard of the Portland Fire Bureau could see smoke in the air as he approached the intersection. The engine braked to a halt, Renhard jumped to the ground and McGowan briefed him.

Renhard was surprised to see McGowan—the two often cross paths as firefighters. Station 45 is staffed half the year by Gresham and half the year by Portland.

The firefighters rushed to the Dodge with a “Jaws of Life,” a device used to free victims trapped in wreckage. They popped the door open and helped Waggoner out of the smoldering car.

*   *   *

Within minutes, Evan Waggoner was on her way to OHSU Hospital. McGowan rode to OHSU in an ambulance with Tyson Fortner.

At the hospital, McGowan met Waggoner’s family. On Tuesday he learned that her pelvis was broken in three places, her left leg was fractured, and her right leg and jaw were injured. She’ll be bedridden for three months and faces numerous surgeries.

The case has been referred to the Multnomah County district attorney’s office for investigation.

Evan Waggoner says she hopes to soon see her fiance, Pfc. James Calkins of the Oregon National Guard, who is in Texas and will be deployed to Iraq early next year.

On Tuesday, both McGowan and Waggoner, savior and saved, had kind words for each other.

McGowan said Waggoner “was so calm. It’s just neat that she survived. It’s nice to see the nice get lucky.”

And from her bed, Waggoner talked through a hospital spokesman. “Make sure everyone knows,” she said, “that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that officer.”