Russ Tanner, a graduate of Johnson County High School in Wrightsville, and Dennis Roland, whose father Dennis Sr. was the head football coach at Middle Georgia College in Cochran, helped pull three adults and a baby from their badly damaged vehicles after being involved in a five-car accident that was caused by a drunk driver and resulted in a fatality Sunday afternoon on a road near Athens.
Tanner and Roland, both starting offensive linemen, were in a vehicle that was knocked into the ditch during the accident but were unhurt. However, 49-year-old Walter Johnson of Greensboro, Ga., the driver of a log truck involved in the accident, was killed, according to a report released Monday by the Georgia State Patrol.
Tanner and Roland were in Tanner’s GMC Sierra driving north on Hwy. 441 out of Athens and on their way to buy sparklers for Tanner’s wedding, which will be held in two weeks in Dublin, both players said, when a white truck veered in front of the log truck driving directly in front of them. According to the state patrol report, Johnson was driving that log truck, and the man in the white Ford F150, 34-year-old Phillip Leachman of Commerce, was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
Leachman is being held in the Jackson County Detention Center on charges of first degree vehicular homicide, DUI, child restraint violation, failure to maintain lane, child endangerment while DUI and driving on wrong side of the road, according to the state patrol.
“(Leachman) hit the semi, and when he did, it kind of bounced him back into his lane, but then he lost control and started fishtailing toward us,” Tanner said. “I wasn’t going to go left because I didn’t know if there were other cars coming and I couldn’t go right because it was about a seven foot drop. We were trying to avoid him, but there was nothing to be done. They just slid into us.”
Tanner’s vehicle went into the ditch trying to avoid the accident and struck Leachman’s F150, according to the state patrol’s report. Johnson lost control of his truck and ran head-on into another tractor-trailer, which had been following Leachman’s truck in the southbound lane of 441, according to the state patrol report. A Dodge Durango following that truck ran off the road to avoid the accident, the state patrol indicated.
“When we got out of the truck we could see there had been another collision, but we couldn’t tell there had been another truck in it because there was so much fire and smoke covering the road,” Roland said.
At first, Tanner went to Leachman’s truck, and Roland called 911 to report the accident, Roland said. When Tanner got to Leachman’s truck, he took an unidentified 11-month-old baby from the 22-year-old unidentified woman in the truck and handed the baby to Roland, he said. He then helped the 22-year-old woman out of the truck, he said.
“The side of the truck was really messed up,” Tanner said. “It wasn’t just the window, it was the whole side of the truck. It was a big hole. I just helped them get out of the truck. They were pulling themselves out.”
Tanner then went to the second tractor-trailer involved in the wreck and helped 44-year-old Wendell Sumerlin and an unidentified adult female out of that truck, according to the state patrol report. He helped both of them escape a fire that had broken out around Johnson’s truck.
“They were both really dazed and kind of falling out, I just tried to help them not hit the ground when they fell,” Tanner said. “I was able to get the lady to her feet and help her over to a ditch and away from the fire. We just kept telling (the man in the truck) to keep rolling, keep rolling, and he rolled over to us in the ditch.
“I don’t think that a hero tag should be applied to either one of us. We were just doing what we thought should be done at the time. Neither one of us really had time to think about what was happening. We were worried about the other people.”
After Tanner and Roland had helped the first two families, they heard observers begin to yell that a person was still in the other truck, Tanner said.
“I ran around to look and when I ran around, you couldn’t even see the cab of the truck for the fire,” he said. “It was a good feeling to get those two people away from the fire, but that was all put in perspective when there was a guy we weren’t able to help. Any kind of good feelings you have about yourself are deflated by that.”
Roland and Tanner have already been recognized by their friends and family, they said.
“People have congratulated us, but I don’t feel like a hero or anything special,” Roland said. “We were just seconds way from having someone have to help us out of the truck. We just got out and did what we needed to do.”
Tanner and Roland stayed at the scene for five hours to help Georgia State Patrol investigators piece together what had happened and wait with Tanner’s truck, which had to be towed from the scene, Tanner said.
“People tell you, ‘I’m sure it’s a blur,’” Tanner said. “It happened quick, but I can still see the entire thing. To see them putting a blanket on the body on the ground… If you’re not in the business where that happens a lot, that shakes you.”