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Forest Grove firefighter recalls grisly Highway 26 crash

Response - Off-duty paramedic encounters crash that killed three people and wounded five more
by: Photo courtesy of the Oregon State Police, Even to a crash-scene veteran like Mark Zawodny, the damage at the fatal accident he encountered earlier this month was shocking. “I would rate it in the top 10 worst crashes that I’ve been on,” said the Forest Grove firefighter.

Mark Zawodny was taking his girlfriend's daughter to the Oregon coast to do some clamming when the traffic came to a sudden halt on U.S. Highway 26 just east of Elsie.

It was about 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20. A man was in the road, waving cars down and asking if anyone had medical training.

Zawodny pulled over to the side of the road and got out. A severed arm lay on the roadside.

That's when his training kicked in.

Zawodny is a paramedic firefighter with Forest Grove Fire and Rescue. Technically, he was off-duty - but serendipity brought him to the accident scene.

A few minutes before he was stopped, a Volkswagen Jetta heading west on Highway 26 had spun across the dividing line and an eastbound pickup drove over the top of the car.

Zawodny's been on more motor vehicle crashes than he can count, but this one was staggering.

'I would rate it in the top 10 worst crashes that I've been on,' Zawodny said.

He went to work, making a headcount of the injured and wounded.

Three female passengers - Roxana M. Chavez, 23, of Tigard; Florencio Martinez-Butron, 22, of Gardena, Calif.; and Liz A. Mateo-Gomez, 17, of Beaverton - were dead.

Five more were wounded, including the driver and another passenger of the Jetta and the driver and passenger of the truck.

'We had no medical equipment with us … we didn't even have gloves,' Zawodny said.

Suddenly, a pair of doctors and a pair of nurses emerged from the backlog of traffic.

'Without any equipment I felt kind of helpless,' Zawodny said. 'The little kit I had didn't have near enough bandages for what was there.'

Along with Zawodny, they began to render what aid they could, prioritizing who needed care and which of the wounded should be the first to ride the LifeFlight helicopters that began hovering overhead.

'I couldn't have worked that scene alone before the first responders without the help of the doctors and nurses,' Zawodny said.

Soon enough a flood of vehicles arrived, ambulances from Tillamook and Washington County and Oregon State Police troopers.

'It seemed like forever, but I would imagine it was probably 15 minutes,' Zawodny said.

Zawodny and a rag-tag crew of bystanders who were pressed into service helped the emergency crews attach neck braces and load the injured into helicopters and ambulances.

About 45 minutes after he stopped, Zawodny got back into his truck, turned around and headed for home. 'I lost all interest in going to the coast at that point,' Zawodny said. 'I just wanted to head home and blow off some steam.'

The crash is still on Zawodny's mind, but he's got a support network at the fire house to lean on: two chiefs, a chaplain and other firefighters.

The bystanders and Good Samaritans who pitched in that day aren't so lucky.

'The ones I feel sorry for are the people I put to work,' Zawodny said, 'because they're probably going to have nightmares about this.'