Driver facing charges after fiery wreck injured trooper on I-40

Driver facing charges after fiery wreck injured trooper on I-40

Posted: Updated:
The crash was near the Gallaher View Road exit. The crash was near the Gallaher View Road exit.
Sgt. Lowell Russell (source: Department of Safety) Sgt. Lowell Russell (source: Department of Safety)
Eric Dwayne Lewis (source: Knox County Sheriff's Office) Eric Dwayne Lewis (source: Knox County Sheriff's Office)
AMR paramedic Freddy Leslie AMR paramedic Freddy Leslie
Police Officer Andrew Keith was also involved in Sgt. Russell's rescue. Police Officer Andrew Keith was also involved in Sgt. Russell's rescue.

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - A Tennessee Highway Patrol trooper was critically injured Tuesday morning when a tractor-trailer driver fell asleep and struck his cruiser. It burst into flames on Interstate 40 in West Knoxville.

Sgt. Lowell Russell, of Vonore, was injured just before 3:00 a.m. in the crash near the Gallaher View Road exit. He had just finished a routine traffic stop and was completing paperwork in his cruiser when the collision happened.

Investigators say the driver of the tractor-trailer truck fell asleep at the wheel before swerving into the highway median, then side-swiped Lowell's vehicle. The trooper's vehicle was pushed across the highway before it caught on fire.

The semi continued to swerve off the side of the road. THP officials say the driver, Eric Dwayne Lewis, 32, of Orlando, Florida, admitted to falling asleep.


The rescue of Sgt. Russell

EMS personnel, Knoxville police and the truck driver helped rescue Russell from the cruiser. Sgt. Russell is in critical condition at UT Medical Center.

AMR paramedics Freddy Leslie and Kristi Graham came up to the scene on their way back to McMinn County after taking a patient to UT Medical Center.

"By the time I look up to see the wreck, we instantly see flames and smoke. There was no question where we were going to stop," Leslie said. "The fire was getting really hot. There was fire in the back. There was fire in the passenger side, and at that point I had to made a decision. I could either watch this guy burn or I could pull him out."

Leslie pulled Sgt. Russell to the side and began to perform medical care.

The paramedic suffered minor burns to his face. He was treated and released from UT Medical Center.

Leslie said the scene at the hospital was very solemn, but Sgt. Russell's family and friends were more than appreciative, shaking his hand and calling him a hero. "I wouldn't call myself a hero," he said. "I was just a paramedic."

Police Officer Andrew Keith was also involved in Sgt. Russell's rescue. He was on his way to help another officer when he saw the accident and turned around.

Officer Keith said the truck driver sawed part of the trooper's very tight seat belt off so he could be freed. Keith has been with the police department since January 2007.

Police say if the rescuers had not acted so quickly, Sgt. Russell would likely have died.

All traffic was diverted off I-40 west at Gallaher View Road for several hours while crews worked to clear the scene.

The scene reconstruction was delayed due to the rainy weather and completed after 11:00 a.m.


Tractor-trailer driver charged

The tractor-trailer driver was uninjured. Eric Dwayne Lewis is charged with aggravated assault with reckless intent, reckless endangerment and failure to yield to an emergency vehicle. He is being held in the Knox County Jail on bonds totaling $10,500, and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on March 26.

A sample of Lewis' blood was taken to check for alcohol and drug use. THP says the results should be back in a couple weeks.

Lewis and his co-driver, Cleotha Nickles, 57, of Orlando, work for FSH Trucking, which is located in Orlando. They were on their way to Amarillo, Texas. No charges have been filed against Nickles.

FSH Trucking President David Allen said the company has been in business since 2004 and he can't recall ever dealing with an accident before.


More on Sgt. Russell

Sgt. Russell was assigned to serve in the Office of Professional Responsibility after being a trooper in Monroe County in the Knoxville District since 2000.

Russell began his career with the THP in Marshall County in the Lawrenceburg District in 1998. He's a graduate of the Cleveland State Police Academy in 1997 and attended Roane State Community College.

6 News interviewed Russell in September 2011 when Marine Lance Cpl. Franklin Namon Watson, 21, was killed in Afghanistan. Russell was Watson's next of kin and had lived with him since age 12.

"Our troopers put their lives on the line every day to keep citizens safe," THP Col. Tracy Trott said in a written statement. "It is especially difficult when one of our troopers is injured in the line of duty. Our thoughts and prayers are with Sgt. Lowell Russell and his family during this difficult time. We pray for his recovery and thank him for his service to our state. He is one of Tennessee's finest. We are also grateful to our fellow law enforcement officers and first responders who were on the scene within minutes of this tragedy."

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