MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Two Combat Center Marines who risked their lives to save others during a vehicle accident were recognized Jan. 27 during a ceremony at the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School.
Chief Warrant Officer William A. Kelly and Master Sgt. James H. Shawgo were both awarded Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal certificates, in lieu of second awards, in front of their peers and fellow Charlie Company Marines for their heroic acts the night of Jan 1.
The two were driving separate vehicles through Yucca Valley that evening to pick up foreign military students arriving at the Palm Springs International Airport.
Shortly after passing a civilian-owned military five-ton truck, both were forced to slam on their brakes and swerve into the center median to narrowly avoid colliding with a stalled car being pushed across both westbound lanes of Highway 62.
“We both were thinking about the five-ton,” said Kelly, the radar training officer-in-charge. “I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw it try to slow, then roll over and then all the dust.”
Shawgo, the radar training staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge, said he had similar thoughts as he looked back at the truck.
“Those trucks have a very high center of gravity and you just can’t swerve with them,” said Shawgo.
The truck was unable to stop in time and the driver jerked the wheel to avoid a collision. When it hit the soft shoulder, the vehicle rolled and caught fire, jamming the throttle open as it crashed.
With night falling, the engine fire, which continued to grow, was large enough to illuminate the area, said Shawgo.
“It was scary,” said Kelly. “I have not been scared like that in a long time. I was shaking. Fire is a scary thing when it’s out of control, but I knew I had a Marine I could trust by my side and that was huge knowing he was there.”
Both ran from their cars to assist the upside-down truck passengers. They doubled their efforts when they heard the shouts of a boy from inside the cab. With the engine now fully engulfed in flames, Kelly said, moving swiftly was the only option.
“I don’t know how we heard anything over the engine noise, but we heard someone yelling for help,” said Kelly. “I went running over there and could not get the passenger door to open. When [Master Sgt. Shawgo] came over, we were able to get it open together.
“We were both pretty worried about the flames shooting from the truck,” Kelly continued. “We knew it was diesel and so it would not blow and the tank wasn’t leaking, so that made us feel better. We were moving fast though because diesel doesn’t explode, but it does burn.”
The two managed to pull a boy from the wreckage and took him away from the fire despite his injuries. The teenager suffered a broken leg and other minor injuries, but his father, who was driving, did not survive the crash.
“I got back in there to try to get the father out, but he was already gone,” said Kelly.
The pair quickly turned their attention to the cargo area of the truck after the child told Kelly and Shawgo his brother and two friends were sitting in back on the return from their hunting trip.
“We didn’t have a flashlight, and were still worried about the fire,” said Kelly. “But when we finally got a light and got a look at the back of the truck, the metal side frame was what was holding it up.”
The two decided to dig around the frame so as not to disturb it and risk collapse. Kelly said the view inside did not look good.
“When I got a look inside, I could see the spare tire was pinning all three kids against the rail and one of them [was very badly hurt],” he said.
Suddenly, the shooting flames and the roar of the engine died away, and minutes later fire trucks arrived to help with the rescue, said Shawgo.
“When we found we could not move them, we just tried to reassure them that the fire department was there and that the fire was out and everything would be OK,” said Kelly.
All of the children in-volved in the accident survived, but one had to be airlifted by helicopter to an area hospital.
“During all of this, the guy who was blocking the road must have gotten his car started and took off,” said Kelly.
“The fact that he didn’t stick around to provide aid when it’s evident that someone needs it is just really wrong,” added Shawgo.
The two said they were very surprised to receive an award for their actions, after only telling the story to other Marines at their unit.
“We told some of the Marines about what happened when we came back,” said Kelly. “It was one of those ‘you won’t believe what happened’ stories.”
Maj. Dennis C. Teitzel, commanding officer, MCCES Charlie Co., said he heard about the incident and submitted the two for the commendations.
“It took a few days to get the write-up and the process completed, but we’re very proud to recognize these Marines for their actions,” said Teitzel.
“This is very indicative of these two Marines,” he continued. “With their traits and their personalities, I know these two would never pass something like this and let it go.”
Kelly and Shawgo said they were both shocked and grateful to be recognized.
For both Marines, however, the incident has changed the way they look at driver safety.
“I think it’s important to see how through carelessness someone’s life can be lost,” said Shawgo, whom according to Kelly is a cautious driver. “Those kids are lucky to be alive.”
For Kelly, the event inspired him to buy new roadside equipment in case of another emergency he may encounter in the future.
“I went out and bought fire extinguishers for my car and house,” he said. “We felt so bad because we had nothing with us to help, not even a flashlight. I’ve also bought road flares and triangles – everything short of the Jaws of Life and a hydraulic lift.
“It has also changed my driving habits,” Kelly continued. “I was normally the 50 means 56 or so guy. When I saw the father’s wedding ring on his hand it really hit home for me.”
Although they say they are proud to be acknowledged, both would just as soon give the medals back if it meant changing what happened.
“If I had to give it back and not have it ever happen, that would be better,” said Shawgo. “Hopefully, I never have to go through anything like that again.”