AVELLA – Fate may have put Cross Creek Township neighbors Joe and Joey Gagliani and Bill Clouston on the same stretch of a West Virginia road last month.
And thanks to the quick actions of the Gaglianis, Clouston is home recovering from back injuries after his pickup truck crashed and caught fire.
Joe Gagliani is a 42-year veteran of the Avella Volunteer Fire Department and his son, who turned 17 Wednesday, has been a junior firefighter for two years. Clouston, an iron worker, lives about a mile from the Gaglianis.
The three later learned they also had been at the same convenience store moments before the Jan. 26 crash.
Clouston said he had gone to Weirton, W.Va., to get a haircut. Then he stopped at Sheetz for gasoline before heading home. The Gaglianis also stopped at Sheetz, grabbing a bite to eat, after running an errand in Weirton.
“We must have been about two minutes behind him,” Gagliani said of his neighbor. Joe and Joey Gagliani were driving on Eldersville Road, in Colliers, W.Va., about a mile from the state line, when they saw smoke coming from the side of the road.
“We came over a knob and noticed something burning,” said the elder Gagliani. “Then we saw tire tracks in the snow and saw the truck over the hill head-on into a tree. As soon as we stopped, the back of the truck burst into flames. A lady was screaming that someone was still in there.”
While Gagliani ran over the hill, Joey called 911. The call first went to the Washington County dispatch center and had to be transferred to dispatchers in Brooke County, W.Va. After explaining the situation, Joey ran over the hill and started throwing snow on the fire in an effort to put it out.
Meanwhile, Gagliani started beating on the window of the truck cab as the inside filled with smoke. He was yelling at the driver, trying to get him to open the door. Gagliani said it appeared the driver’s foot was on the accelerator as the back wheels of the truck continued to spin.
“I didn’t know it was Bill,” Gagliani said. “The truck was screaming at a high RPM. With four inches of snow on the ground, I couldn’t find a rock to break the window.”
Another man came running up. He had a bar that they used to break the small window in the cab.
“I tried reaching my arm in to unlock the door and the smoke was not helping. The way the truck was up against the tree we couldn’t get to the passenger side,” Gagliani said. “I kept yelling at the man inside the truck to unlock the door or give me his keys. Joey kept screaming the truck was going to blow.”
Joey, a junior at Avella High School, said the truck’s tire had shredded and he was concerned that with the way the engine was racing, it was going to blow up. He said the rear passenger side tire was slightly off the ground against a fence post.
“The driver started to come to as some of the smoke cleared,” he added. “When he looked at me, I realized it was Bill. He tried to work his hand over to the door.”
Firefighters from Beech Bottom Volunteer Fire Department arrived, along with firefighters from Hooverson Heights. Firefighters used a Hurst tool to pop open the door. Weather prevented Clouston from being flown to a Pittsburgh hospital so he was taken by ambulance to Weirton Medical Center, where he spent five days being treated for a back injury.
“It was scary. As a firefighter, you are used to having the tools you need but we had nothing,” Gagliani said. “My heart felt better when I heard the sirens.”
Clouston is not sure whether he fell asleep at the wheel or if he blacked out. He said he could hear someone yelling outside the truck, but did not realize it was Gagliani. When he returned home from the hospital, he called the Gaglianis to thank them.
The air bags on Clouston’s Ford F-150 did not deploy, although the truck crashed head-on into the tree.
“I was wearing my seat belt,” Clouston said. “I always wear it and I always will now.”