Being a law enforcement officer isn’t something Whitfield County Deputy Shawn Giles just turns on and off like a light switch.
He’s all lawman, all the time.
For proof, consider what happened during a recent trip he and fellow Deputy Andy Center made to pick up a prisoner from the Turner County jail and return him to Whitfield County.
On their way back to Whitfield County, right in front of their eyes, an 18-wheeler jackknifed and slid off I-75 near the I-75/I-475 split, with the front wheels of the tractor jumping over the guardrail. In the process, the tractor-trailer knocked two other vehicles off the highway and down an embankment – trapping a young girl in a car that wound up on top of a vehicle with a family of seven inside.
“Traffic had slowed down for another wreck, and this truck I guess didn’t see it in time,” Giles explained. “I don’t know what happened – he jackknifed and just slid right into them and knocked them through the guard rail and down the embankment. I saw the crash happen – Andy was driving, and I said, get them blue lights on and get up there. That’s bad, that’s bad. I’ve worked traffic most of my career, almost 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot of accidents, a lot of fatalities, and I really thought somebody was dead in that one. The embankment doesn’t show as big in the picture as what it was – the cars rolled about three times, I think.”
While Center had to stay behind to keep an eye on the prisoner, Giles hurried down the embankment as a cold rain continued to come down but to his relief he quickly discovered all occupants of both vehicles still alive but in imminent danger.
“I got in the bottom car first because there was kids in there,” Giles said. “I got half of the family out, and gas was just pouring in on top of us. I knew the top car had been smoking as I was coming down the embankment. That was the first time I’ve had to go: Do I want to die today because this could be a good chance. That was a scary moment, probably one of the only times I’ve had to check myself, but I just told myself to get back there and get these kids out.”
Two girls were trapped in the back, he said, “and they were mortified, screaming, please help, please help, please help me. They were about 11 or 12, and I got them out.”
Once the family of seven had been safely extricated, Giles – still acting as a one-man rescue crew – turned his attention to the girl still trapped in the top vehicle.
“She was going in and out (of consciousness) on me,” Giles said. “I told her, girl, you gonna have to help me because it’s just me and you. The car was stuck up on an angle, and it was awkward getting her out. I’m standing on top of the one on the bottom, trying to get her out the driver’s side. She was crawling out, and she finally got enough gumption to help me get her out of the car.”
Looking back, Giles describes the accident scene as “a scary one.”
“I’ve worked traffic, worked wrecks all my life,” he said. “I’ve crawled in cars, you know, caught all kinds of bad guys, murderers, rapists, child molesters, running, gunning, and everything, but that’s the first time I think I’ve had to check myself.”
He says he doesn’t know how long the rescues took him “because I was trying to stay focused and calm and they were just screaming, Mom and Dad screaming and yelling. Dad’s brother was in a car in front of them, so he and his wife had stopped and were out there screaming and yelling because of the baby trapped inside. Everybody’s cut, everybody’s hurt, it was mass hysteria for about 20 minutes because it took EMS a minute to get there. I’m telling you, for about the first 20 minutes, it was me down there getting them out. That’s when everything really went crazy – everybody’s sorta coming to and understanding what’s happening, screaming and going crazy, and rightfully so because they had five kids in there, from infant to I think the oldest ones were maybe 11, 12, 13.”
Giles explained that the weather conditions hindered the rescue. “It was pouring rain, it was freezing, it was so cold!” he said. “I was out there for about 40 minutes till the state trooper got there. I had to give the girl (in the top vehicle) my coat because she was starting to go into shock. When I finally got back in our car to write my information down, I couldn’t even write, my hands were so cold! I told Andy, you’re gonna have to write this for me – I can’t write it!”
While Giles downplayed his actions after the crash, he did admit he was proud of himself for remaining calm in the hectic scene.
“I guess it’s all these years of dealing with situations like that,” he said. “I was extremely calm, I mean extremely calm, even to the fact that I was talking to the mom, she was the second one I got out after the dad. I had to go in through the front windshield – it was gone, busted out, and mom is just screaming, and I remember saying, ‘I got you. We got everything. Just relax, go easy. Just take a deep breath. We got it’ in a calm voice to her. When it was over, I thought, ‘Shawn, that was good.’ Once everything calmed down, Dad couldn’t even stand up, I don’t know if it was from something hurting or just shock.”
Reflecting on the fateful day, Giles didn’t take into consideration that the accident happened miles outside his usual jurisdiction of Whitfield County. “After all these years, reacting to stuff like that, you just go to work. It doesn’t matter if it’s South Georgia, here, you just go to work.”
He was glad to have nearly two decades of experience dealing with such situations “because I really had to think twice about going in,” he said. “I know that sounds bad, but it’s true. I thought about I have two boys myself, with that gas pouring in on top of us. I told myself, ‘You got two boys too that you gotta come home to.’ I just kept thinking, that car’s smoking, that car’s smoking. But finally I just told myself, ‘You get back there no matter what happens, we getting these babies out!’ I know I’d want somebody to get my babies out.”
Giles could very easily not have even been in a position to rescue the victims, though, as he had switched from a patrol officer about a year ago. “Now I’m assigned to the courthouse itself,” he says. “Some days I’m transport, some days I’m in the courtrooms, some days I’m at the metal detector.”
He could have been in Whitfield County, but fortunately for those eight victims of a rainy day accident, Giles was heading back on I-75 with a prisoner.
As he puts it, “The Good Lord put me in the right place at the right time on that one. He made it work out – things have a plan. We’re on His time.”