On the morning of June 4, 2015, Engineer Mark Hanenberger, 44, from the March Field Emergency Fire Services, was driving home after roll call when he noticed traffic had stopped. About the time he thought he would turn around to take another route, like the person in front of him had done, it began moving again.
That is when he came across the reason for the jam, a multiple vehicle traffic collision. Without hesitation his 26 years of experience kicked in. Hanenberger, a former sheriff who was trained to never stop in front of a scene but to drive through it and then park and walk back, safely parked his vehicle and began to assess the scene.
“You get a feel for (it), when you see an accident scene, that either it’s not that bad or it’s pretty bad,” he said. “I stopped, put my flashers on and grabbed the gloves I keep in my glove compartment.”
As he approached the scene he observed a woman in a vehicle on her phone. He confirmed that she was on the phone with the 911 operator before moving toward an injured victim being attended to by others on scene.
After checking on that victim, making sure the attendees didn’t need his help, and making sure no other victims needed his immediate assistance, he directed his attention to scene safety.
“I saw a guy on a motorcycle who had stopped and I asked him to help slow the traffic down, and if it didn’t slow down to stop it all together,” Hanenberger said. The bystander complied.
Upon arrival of the Nuview Fire Station 3 (CAL FIRE), the first department to arrive on scene, Hanenberger said he gave them a full report of what he had observed and done, and then continued to assist firefighter/paramedics until they had the scene covered and released him.
“Sounds like he (Hanenberger) made a pretty big impact in maintaining a somewhat calm scene at an extremely chaotic time,” said CAL FIRE Captain Ben Forqueran in an email to his battalion chief.
Because of this accident, Hanenberger said he now carries a pocket mask in his personal vehicle just to be better prepared.
“I’ve always carried gloves. (But) I realized that I really need to keep the pocket mask with me,” Hanenberger said. “My main duty at a scene like this is to try to stay calm and remain in control.”
Things are changing constantly at an accident scene and adaptation is crucial, although he said some things are beyond adaptability.
Although those who stop to help at an accident scene are covered under “Good Samaritan” laws, Hanenberger said they can also become part of the problem.
“The first thing bystanders have to realize is don’t be part of the problem. If you can’t safely stop, and you can’t safely render aid, I wouldn’t stop,” Hanenberger said.
Eligible for retirement, Hanenberger, who has been with the March Field department since 1997, said he will continue because his daughter starts college in the fall.
Saddened by the news that one of the children in the accident was killed despite rescue attempts, Hanenberger said this was one of the toughest calls he has been on in his career.
“They are innocent and haven’t lived yet,” he said thinking about his own daughter. “We can only control so much,” he said. “I do think we made a difference in the eyes of those involved because of what I’ve read on Facebook. That’s the goal.”